WASHINGTON — If Rip van Winkle were to wake up today after a seven-year snooze and check the papers, he probably wouldn't believe his eyes.
In six-plus years, the US economy has boomed in ways the experts thought impossible: Unemployment has sunk below 5 percent, a 23-year low. Inflation, around 3 percent, is at a 30-year low. The stock market continues to break records. There are even possible signs that the rich-poor income gap may be easing.
In the social arena, the news is just as heartening: Welfare rolls have declined dramatically. Violent crime has plummeted. Teen sexual activity is declining for the first time in two decades. The teen birthrate is also down. The abortion rate has dropped for four straight years.
Internationally, more people are living in democracies than ever. The world's population is growing slower than predicted, easing fears of an early crisis over resources and environment.
It's all enough to make doomsayers throw up their hands and go home. But explaining the spate of good news is no simple matter - especially if one tries to find an overarching connection between the economy and societal issues.
"There may be a linkage, but it's extremely weak," says William Popenoe, a sociologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
"It's certainly the case that welfare rolls could be affected by the economy. The same with crime," he says. "Any time people are a little bit better off, their outlook is rosier and they're more likely to walk the straight and narrow path."
But, he adds, one could also make the case for the opposite. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, hard times brought families together, and the divorce rate dropped.
In current times, the divorce rate leveled off in the early 1980s. It has since stayed there, which is in some ways an encouraging sign, but is also a result of the trend toward forgoing marriage altogether.
End of a bad wave?
David Hackett Fischer, a historian at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., has laid out a whole thesis linking waves of inflation throughout history with periods of social upheaval, marked by family disintegration and high rates of birth outside of marriage.
We are currently in the late stages of a great global wave that began in the 1890s, Professor Fischer writes in his book "The Great Wave." It is an extended period of economic disequilibrium and societal stress that mirrors similar periods in the 16th and 18th centuries.
Under Fischer's thesis, it is tempting to surmise that the current low inflation and slight downturn in illegitimate births mean the latest wave is ending. But in an interview, Fischer demurs.
"Well, it's possible" that we have reached the end of the current wave, he says, adding that the future will be determined in no small part by choices that have yet to be made by leaders.
Still, he points to a significant global trend that may signal the end of the wave is coming: the decline in the rate of population growth.
To be sure, most countries' populations are still growing (though more than 60 nations now have rates of population increase below the replacement level). But the lower rates of growth could mean a lessening of economic demand, and therefore lower inflation.
The end of the cold war - and with it a decline in the growth of military spending throughout the world - also eases an inflationary pressure that had been in place for 45 years. Before that, military spending for both world wars was also highly inflationary.
Fischer also points to expanding education of women throughout the world, which contributes to lower birth rates, as a key component in reducing inflationary pressure. And he notes that the restructuring of economies around the world is reducing the rate of growth of government spending - again, a trend that dampens inflation.
"You put all these things together and disinflationary pressures are building," he concludes. But "it's not clear if this is really a fundamental ... break that would lead to a long period of price equilibrium."
Beating social ills
Other observers prefer to examine the turning in social trends somewhat apart from the economic boom. Beginning in this decade, communitarian leader Amitai Etzioni sees a regeneration of society setting in, a shifting of the pendulum away from anarchy and back toward social order.
In his new book, "The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society," he notes that this "curl back" has not gone far enough, nor is its future shape clear.
Indeed, many of the new positive social trends merely represent a year or two of backtracking from negative phenomena - such as abortion and out-of-wedlock teen childbearing - that had worsened for years if not decades. The US continues to lead the industrialized West in its abortion and teen pregnancy rates.
Some observers question whether these positive signs will wind up being just temporary blips on a bleak screen. But Dr. Etzioni says he is "guardedly optimistic" that the corner has been turned. "We saw the future and we didn't like it."
Some positive trends appear to be a result of related, discreet phenomena. For example, the decline in teen pregnancy may be linked to AIDS education efforts.
Use of condoms among teenagers has risen dramatically, just as 90 percent of women age 18 and 19 report having received formal instruction in how to prevent transmission of sexually transmitted diseases.
But troubles remain
Of course, many social pathologies are not improving at all. Drug use - particularly marijuana - is up among teens. Teen suicide rates have failed to go down in recent years.
And the number of children living in households headed by single mothers has risen every year since 1960, without exception.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, New York's Democratic senator and a preeminent observer of family breakdown, decries the "downward definition of deviancy," in which behaviors that society once found appalling - such as out-of-wedlock childbearing - are now viewed as normal.
Statistics about absent fathers and about children who start life on welfare prove that "social chaos has come," Senator Moynihan recently wrote.
"Basically, my picture on what's happening in the country is not at all optimistic," says Robert Bellah, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley and author of "Habits of the Heart," a book that chronicles America's growing culture of individualism.
Professor Bellah cites unemployment statistics that mask the fact that many employed people don't make enough to live on, or are working part time when they want to work full time, or are not included in the numbers at all because they've given up looking for work.
"The upper middle class has withdrawn from association with most Americans," he says. "We just don't know what's going on out there."
Baby boomers vs. Hollywood
As for social trends, the future holds competing influences. The large baby boom generation is now busy raising children, which has had a conservatizing effect on society as a whole.
But countering that is Hollywood, which continues to send messages that premarital sex is the norm. Nine out of 10 sex episodes on TV take place outside of marriage, notes Mr. Popenoe, the Rutgers sociologist.
"Most sitcoms, it seems, have to do with young people trying to figure out who they're going to sleep with," Popenoe says.
The challenge, therefore, will be for today's leaders to keep the positive social trends heading in the right direction, while operating in an open, democratic society. The economic good news may help. But it may not be enough.
The Good News (With Some Qualifiers)
* US unemployment is at 4.9 percent, a 23-year low.
* Welfare caseloads have dropped at least 9 percent nationally in four years, and in a few states by more than 25 percent. But it's unclear what has become of many former recipients.
* Inflation hovers around 3 percent, a 30-year low.
* The percentage of teens who have had sex has declined for the first time after increasing steadily for two decades. Teen contraceptive use is increasing.
* Since President Clinton took office, 11 million new jobs have been created.
* The abortion rate has declined for four straight years. But the US still has the highest rate in the industrialized West.
* The stock market continues to break records.
* The teen birth rate declined 8 percent between 1991 and 1995. But the percentage of teen births that are out-of-wedlock remains high - more than 75 percent.
* The federal budget deficit has fallen four years in a row.
* Internationally, more people are living under democratic rule than ever, according to Freedom House.
* The income gap between rich and poor in the US appears to have stopped widening and may have reversed, according to the White House.