- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 25, 2001

When William J. Bennett first devised the Index of Leading Cultural Indicators in 1993, he was contributing an indispensable compilation of hard facts to the debate on society that all too often relied on more subjective materials the force of trends, fashionable thinking and basic gut reactions.

In its latest incarnation from Empower.org, the research arm of Empower America, the Index does have some good news. While total crime surged 126 percent overall between 1960 and 1999, it actually fell 27 percent between 1990 and 1999. And while the percentage of Americans receiving welfare grew by 53 percent between 1960 and 1999, it still fell 43 percent between 1990 and 1999. Teen suicide increased 134 percent between 1960 and 1999, but decreased 20 percent between 1990 and 1998. Such recent drops indicate a healthy effort is under way to reverse some of the more harmful social trends of recent decades.

Other news, however, is nothing less than dire. As Mr. Bennett writes in the introduction to the Index, "Of particular concern is the breakdown of the American family," something he calls "the most profound, consequential, and negative social trend of our time." According to the latest data, Mom, Pop and the kids continue their unprecedented disintegration unchecked. Take illegitimate births. Between 1990 and 1999, these increased 18 percent, bringing the total upsurge between 1960 and 1999 to a staggering 523 percent. Put the statistics into human terms and that means 28 million illegitimate Americans have been born since 1960. Given such statistics, not to mention the ones indicating that daughters of single parents are 164 percent more likely to have illegitimate babies of their own, and 92 percent more likely to divorce than daughters of married parents, it's not surprising to learn that the percentage of single-parent families continues to rise, increasing 13 percent in the 1990s. This brings the total increase between 1960 and 1999 to more than 248 percent.

As a result, only about half of American children can today expect to grow up in an intact family in a nation which has the dubious distinction of having the highest percentage of single-parent families among industrialized nations.

Divorce may have been down in the 1990s (a mere 5 percent), but so was marriage (9 percent). In the same decade, cohabitation increased by almost 50 percent since 1960, increasing nearly 1,000 whopping percent. Meanwhile, research shows that couples who live together before marriage are almost twice as likely to divorce as couple who do not.

Such trends will never lead to anything even approaching a renaissance of the family. (And the statistics mentioned above don't even include the Index-tabulated increases in youngsters' sexual activity, which also tear at family cohesiveness.) But while rising crime and welfare dependence, for example, were subjects of national debate that led to successful reforms, the plight of the family receives relatively little attention. "Politicians are often reluctant to speak out about some of the more contentious issues divorce or illegitimacy, for example for fear that they will be seen as censorious or 'judgmental,' " Mr. Bennett writes. "However, unless we admit that the widespread incidence of these behaviors has deeply harmed our children and our nation, we will not reverse these trends in any significant way."

The Index Leading Cultural Indicators 2001 is an important first step.


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