What's Behind Good News In Reversing Social Woes
'RESPONSIBILITY' IS A WATCHWORD
Fewer teenagers are having babies. Abortions are down overall. Crime has declined, in some cities dramatically. Hundreds of thousands of people have left the welfare rolls, many to pursue work or training in a society that is saying "take responsibility."Skip to next paragraph
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Good news, it seems, is breaking out all over. Like a skilled politician, President Clinton has seized on it: "We're on the cusp here, maybe, of turning a lot of our social problems around," he told religious leaders at a recent breakfast.
That is probably too optimistic, say social scientists, who warn against concluding that the nation is seeing a definitive turnaround in societal trends that have endured for 30 years. Some statistics are preliminary. All need to be examined closely and put in their proper context.
But it may be more than coincidence that so many tough social problems have taken a turn for the better at the same time.
"Americans in general have said enough is enough," says William Galston, a former adviser to Mr. Clinton.
"I'm just speculating here, but I do think that starting in the late 1980s, a new social consensus began to jell across a number of party and ideological lines that certain trends with which our country had been living for a generation were no longer tolerable," adds Mr. Galston, a public policy professor now back at the University of Maryland in College Park.
Gary Bauer of the conservative Family Research Council echoes the more liberal Galston: "I think there are some signs of hope that the public may be rethinking the emphasis on liberty of the last 30 years, and focusing more on responsibility."
Observers like Mr. Bauer and Galston point to the social woes of the past 30 years and see a form of societal learning at work. Girls who see their older sisters' lives ruined by early sexual activity and child-bearing may decide that route is not for them. Boys who see older brothers wind up in jail, or dead, may be reaching the same conclusion.
Of course, lots of people aren't getting these messages, or are getting them selectively. Abortion rates and teen-pregnancy rates in America still far outstrip those of other developed countries. And teen drug use is on the rise, a sign that the waning of some socially unacceptable behavior does not necessarily translate across the board. Drug use is cyclical, say experts, and just happens to be on a different cycle from other social trends.
Some antidrug activists blame Clinton, in part, for sending the wrong signal in his statements on drug use.
Older and wiser?
Demographics could be an important factor in many of the improved trends. The baby boom generation is aging, and as people grow older, they are more likely to exhibit responsible behavior.
"Baby boomers have spent the past 10 years discovering that the attitudes and practices that served them well as young single adults are not nearly as functional now that they're called upon to be responsible parents," says Galston. "To the extent boomers constitute the center of demographic gravity in the country, their shift in the direction of parenthood and of [being] responsible adult agents in society is creating a somewhat different social climate."
The demographic trend among women is that the child-bearing population is aging, perhaps contributing to a lower incidence of abortion. In the area of youth crime, criminologists are warning of a demographic time bomb - a coming boom in the teenage population, especially among disadvantaged populations - that could send youth crime statistics skyrocketing. The end of federally guaranteed welfare and expectations that the economy will sooner or later go into recession contribute to concerns about crime trends.
As politicians applaud the good news on crime statistics, criminologists plead for perspective.
"The numbers on youth crime are like a warm day in December," says James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. He notes that the rate of killing by 14- to 17-year-olds went up 145 percent between 1985 and 1995, and that includes the drop that occurred between 1994 and 1995.
Still, Professor Fox and other crime experts say that important lessons can be learned from the dramatic decline in crime in major population centers like New York, Boston, and Orange County, Calif. Police departments there have aggressively enforced laws against minor infractions, such as panhandling and turnstile-jumping, sending a signal that disorder of any sort will not be tolerated.