What's Behind Good News In Reversing Social Woes


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."

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.

In a recent survey, Fox found that crime was not declining in all states, but that in areas with youth-mentoring programs, crime did go down. He did not see the same correlation for youth curfews.

"Punishment is not necessarily the way to go," he says. "You need to provide kids with alternatives."

Bauer, of the Family Research Council, looks at it differently: "Maybe one of the reasons crime is trending down is we've got more of the criminals off the streets now."

If nothing else, social trends defy easy explanation. Consider the decline in abortions: By 1994, the last year for which data are available, the abortion rate for American women had reached an 18-year low - 21 abortions for every 1,000 women. In that year the total number of abortions also declined to 1.2 million, down from 1.3 million the year before and the fourth straight annual decline.

Possible explanations are numerous. Besides the aging of the child-bearing population, arguments by those who oppose abortion may have caused more women to think twice about ending unwanted pregnancies. Or, the threat of violence at abortion clinics - though showing a general decline, despite recent incidents - may have made more women fearful of going to them.

Abortion-rights advocates applaud the decline in abortions, as long as it's for the right reasons. They're concerned that the decline may be a result of decreasing access to abortion, noting that the number of abortion providers has dropped almost 20 percent in the past 10 years.

Growing numbers of restrictions on abortion at the state level may also be having some impact, but Jacqueline Darroch Forrest, a researcher on reproductive issues at the Alan Guttmacher Institute in New York, doubts they could account for the size of the decline in abortions.

Fewer babies on all fronts

On both the abortion and teen-pregnancy trends, Ms. Forrest says more data are needed to explain them.

"We know the pregnancy rate in the country as a whole has gone down," she says. "The question is, 'Does that mean there's been a decrease in unintended pregnancies as well?' We think so, but we're not sure yet."

She notes that there has been a general trend toward increased contraceptive use, and the introduction in recent years of long-acting methods, Norplant and Depo-provera, which tend to be used more heavily in demographic groups that have more unintended pregnancies.

Forrest adds that early data show teen sexual activity is plateauing or perhaps even decreasing. "We think there may be greater delay in starting sex, and that may be having some effect on the pregnancy rate," she says.

Some activists say the data need to be examined closely to make sure America doesn't applaud trends that aren't really there. Elayne Bennett, founder of a mentoring program for girls called Best Friends, which preaches sexual abstinence, suggests the decline in teen pregnancy may be a sign that married 18- and 19-year-olds are delaying childbirth. Forrest says it's unlikely that's the case, given that married teens account for only a small part of teens who have babies.

Activists are also concerned that the numerous positive trends could cause the public's sense of urgency to slacken - and allow politicians to spend less money on social programs.

At a press conference last month announcing a sharp drop in violent crimes among young teens, Attorney General Janet Reno argued that the numbers show that these programs are working and need to continue.

How to maintain momentum?

The question of which programs work best is likely to heat up. So is the debate over how to keep the trends heading in the right direction.

"There are a lot of successful programs ... around the country, but they're like islands in this massive ocean, where people who aren't making it to the islands are drowning," says Jim Wallis, a liberal religious activist based in Washington. "The question is how to connect the islands, if you will, then how to have a social policy that empowers and funds the projects that are working."

One answer, Mr. Wallis says, lies in civil society and in creating partnerships between business, the government, and the public sector. Many leading public figures have been thinking along those lines. Last weekend, in fact, a National Commission on Civic Renewal convened its first plenary session here in Washington, co-chaired by ex-Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia and former Education Secretary William Bennett, a Republican. William Galston is the executive director.

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