- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Abortion and divorce rates are falling, but the United States is falling behind on a growing number of other measures of prosperity and social health, according to a report released Wednesday by a conservative think tank.

Taken together, the Heritage Foundation’s first Index of Culture and Opportunity finds that America has moved deeper into troubled territory in the last 10 years.

While data do not “equate” with destiny, this new index is intended to show “where we are now as a nation and to strengthen our resolve to get America back on track,” wrote Jim DeMint, president of the Heritage Foundation and former South Carolina senator.

The goal is to show how cultural and economic activities shape America — and help or hinder opportunities for people to achieve the “American dream,” said Jennifer A. Marshall, vice president for the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity at Heritage Foundation, and report co-editor.

Heritage researchers looked at 10 years of national data to track trends in 31 areas.

Eight areas showed improvement over 10 years: Divorce, abortion and violent crime rates all fell. The percentage of American families dependent on the federal welfare program also fell. Also, the Heritage survey noted that rates rose for charter school enrollment, private school choice participation, high school graduation and job openings.

However, 23 measures were struggling or headed on “the wrong track,” the report said.

For instance, despite several positive trends in education, there were unsatisfactory results on reading proficiency and student loan debt.

Culturally, the rates for marriage, total fertility, religious attendance and volunteering declined. Teen drug use rose, as did birth rates for unwed mothers and the number of single-parent households.

In the poverty and general economic opportunity categories, the index found discouraging trends for labor force participation, use of welfare programs like food stamps and subsidized housing, and unemployment.

The nation is also struggling under government taxation and regulation, the Heritage report said.

America’s “retreat” from marriage disadvantages children and fuels social and economic inequalities, sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project and senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, said in the report.

Unwed childbearing — which rose 6.7 percentage points from 2002 to 2012, to over 40 percent — is still linked to poverty. It is “one of the preeminent reasons this nation, despite spending about $1 trillion a year on programs for disadvantaged families, is struggling to reduce poverty and increase economic mobility,” wrote Ron Haskins, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at Brookings Institution.

The current number of public assistance recipients, at 3.6 million, is far lower than in the peak years in the 1990s, when 14 million people got welfare checks.

However, the percentage of the qualifying households participating in work or job searches sank below 30 percent in 2006 and has been sliding lower since. This means the “core component of welfare reform” is “not only on the wrong track, but off the track,” wrote Robert Doar, a fellow at American Enterprise Institute and former commissioner of New York City’s Human Resources Administration.

The best strategy for welfare reform is “help and hassle” — i.e., “assist the needy but also demand that they do more to help themselves,” wrote Lawrence M. Mead, a professor of politics and public policy at New York University. “With or without jobs,” he said, “the best solution [for families] is the traditional one — for parents to avoid pregnancy until marriage, and for marriages to last.”

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