America Escapes Again

America Escapes Again

If you looked at the rates of crime, welfare dependency, and drug use in the 1990s, things in America looked pretty bleak. Then, unexpectedly, the trends started moving in a positive direction. What happened?

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THE SOURCE: “Crime, Drugs, ­Welfare—­and Other Good News” by Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin, in Commentary, Dec. 2007.

Fifteen years ago, conservative social commentators were predicting a precipitous and seemingly inexorable national decline. Former education secretary and drug czar William J. Bennett summed up the evidence most starkly: Since 1960 violent crime had increased 500 percent; ­out-­of-­wedlock births, 400 percent. The teenage suicide rate had tripled and the divorce rate had doubled. SAT scores had plunged by more than 70 ­points.

Then, “just when it seemed as if the storm clouds were about to burst, they began to part,” write Peter Weh­ner and Yuval Levin, fellows at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. The rates of both  vio­lent and property crime fell between 1993 and 2005, reaching their lowest levels since 1973, the first year for which data are available. Teenage drug use declined 23 percent from the rates of the 1990s. Welfare caseloads shrank 60 percent from their peak. Annual abor­tions decreased from 1.6 to 1.3 million. And the mean SAT score was eight points higher in 2005 than in 1993, the year Bennett issued his warning.

The change is “impressive, undeniable, and beyond what most people thought possible,” say Wehner and Levin. It appears that it flowed from changes in government policy combined “with a more-or-less simultan­eous shift in public atti­tudes, with each sustaining and feeding the other.”

While policy changes played a clear role in the fall in the rates of crime, welfare dependency, and drug use and in the rise in test scores, the authors write, the decrease in abortions seems to have grassroots causes. It was not a decision of the Supreme Court or the passage of legislation by Congress that affected the numbers, but rather that the “give and take of public discussion . . . [prompted] a slow, subterranean shifting” of views. “All in all, not only has the public discussion of abortion been profoundly transformed, but younger Americans seem to have moved the farthest.” In Septem­ber, a poll showed that Americans between the ages of 18 and 30 were the most likely of all age groups to oppose ­abortion.

One institution still seems headed south, the authors say. Although better-educated Americans are less likely to get divorced than in the past, the marriage rate is down, the number of couples cohabiting without marrying is up, and so is the number of babies born out of wedlock. Will this change as other social indicators have? The authors say it could go either way. The family is so important, and the percentage of births to unmarried women so high (37 percent), that its prob­lems could undo all the other signs of cultural progress. Or not. Sometimes traditional moral values begin in one social group—the well educated in the case of marriage—and become more universal.

But to those who still write off American society as “incorrigibly corrupt and adrift,” the authors say, young people are a powerful embodiment of America’s “sur­prising national resilience.”

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