by Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin
Fifteen years ago, a deep pessimism seemed to be stalking the American landscape. It arose from diverse quarters, took different forms, and cited a congeries of different symptoms—military, economic, social, cultural, and spiritual—in support of its dark diagnosis. For some, like the Yale historian Paul Kennedy, America’s commitments abroad—dubbed by Kennedy a species of “imperial overstretch”—were a sure harbinger of impending national decline. Others, like the leftist literary critic Alfred Kazin, saw a broad collapse of domestic morale, partially disguised by our “unparalleled technological power and scientific advance.” Echoing Kazin from the other side of the political spectrum, James W. Michaels, the editor of Forbes, introduced a symposium marking his magazine’s 75th anniversary by declaring the American condition to be a moral and cultural “mess”:
While the media natter about a need for economic change, these serious intellectuals [in the Forbes symposium] worry about our psyches. Can the human race stand prosperity? Is the American experiment in freedom and equal opportunity morally bankrupt? . . . It isn’t the economic system that needs fixing. . . . It’s our value system.
As for the social reality underlying this general feeling of decline, a number of conservative commentators, concentrating especially on the areas of crime, welfare dependency, and illegitimacy, undertook the task of quantifying and analyzing the available evidence. The most notable such effort was by William J. Bennett, who in March 1993 released a report entitled The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators.*
Over the course of the preceding three decades, Bennett wrote, the United States had indeed experienced “substantial social regression.” About this, the data were unequivocal. Since 1960, there had been a more than 500-percent increase in violent crime; a more than 400-percent increase in out-of-wedlock births; almost a tripling in the percentage of children on welfare; a tripling of the teenage suicide rate; a doubling of the divorce rate; and a decline of more than 70 points in SAT scores. To Bennett, the conclusion was inescapable: “the forces of social decomposition [in America] are challenging—and in some instances overtaking—the forces of social composition.”
Could anything be done to halt the slide, or even turn it around? Few seemed to hold out much hope. “America’s worsening social pathologies,” according to the Heritage Foundation’s journal Policy Review in 1994, “have convinced many on both sides of the political aisle” that no end was in sight to the nation’s “deep cultural decline.” Robert H. Bork’s 1996 book Slouching Toward Gomorrah put this view most starkly. In his chapter on crime and welfare, Bork wrote:
These pathologies were easy to fall into and will be very difficult to climb out of. There is, in fact, no agreement about how to cure them. It may be, in fact, that a democratic nation will be unable to take the measures necessary, once we know what those measures are.
Summing up, Bork urged his readers to “take seriously the possibility that perhaps nothing will be done to reverse the direction of our culture, that the degeneracy we see about us will only become worse.”
But a strange thing happened on the way to Gomorrah. Just when it seemed as if the storm clouds were about to burst, they began to part. As if at once, things began to turn around. And now, a decade-and-a-half after these well-founded and unrelievedly dire warnings, improvements are visible in the vast majority of social indicators; in some areas, like crime and welfare, the progress has the dimensions of a sea-change. That this has happened should be a source of great encouragement; why it happened, and what we can learn from it, is a subject of no less importance.
In a number of key categories, the amount of ground gained or regained since the early 1990’s is truly stunning. Crime, especially, has plummeted. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), the rates of both violent crime and property crime fell significantly between 1993 and 2005, reaching their lowest levels since 1973 (the first year for which such data are available). More recent figures from the FBI, which measures crime differently from the NCVS, show an unfortunate uptick in violent crime in the last two years—particularly in cities like Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Even so, however, the overall rate remains far below that of the mid-1990’s.
Teenage drug use, which moved relentlessly upward throughout the 1990’s, declined thereafter by an impressive 23 percent, and for a number of specific drugs it has fallen still lower. Thus, the use of ecstasy and LSD has dropped by over 50 percent, of methamphetamine by almost as much, and of steroids by over 20 percent.
Then there is welfare. Since the high-water mark of 1994, the national welfare caseload has declined by over 60 percent. Virtually every state in the union has reduced its caseload by at least a third, and some have achieved reductions of over 90 percent. Not only have the numbers of people on welfare plunged, but, in the wake of the 1996 welfare-reform bill, overall poverty, child poverty, black child poverty, and child hunger have all decreased, while employment figures for single mothers have risen.
Abortion, too, is down. After reaching a high of over 1.6 million in 1990, the number of abortions performed annually in the U.S. has dropped to fewer than 1.3 million, a level not seen since the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which legalized the practice. The divorce rate, meanwhile, is now at its lowest level since 1970.
Educational scores are up. Earlier this year, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reported that the nation’s fourth- and eighth-graders continue to improve steadily in math, and that fourth-grade reading achievement is similarly on the rise. Other findings show both fourth- and twelfth-graders scoring significantly higher in the field of U.S. history. Black and Hispanic students are also making broad gains, though significant gaps with whites persist. The high-school dropout rate, under 10 percent, is at a 30-year low, and the mean SAT score was 8 points higher in 2005 than in 1993, the year Bennett published his Index.
More generally, we are seeing important progress in critical areas of youth behavior. Since 1991 (a peak year), the birth rate for teenagers aged fifteen to nineteen has decreased by 35 percent. The number of high-school students who have reported ever having sexual intercourse has declined by more than 10 percent. Teen use of alcohol has also fallen sharply since 1996—anywhere from 10 to 35 percent, depending on the grade in school—and binge drinking has dropped to the lowest levels ever recorded. The same is true of teens reporting that they smoke cigarettes daily.
John P. Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, has summarized these across-the-board findings in one succinct sentence: “We have a broad set of behaviors by young people that are going in a healthy direction."
To be sure, we have not reached anything like nirvana. The gains made are not yet secure, and could easily be lost. Nor should it be forgotten that the improvements occurred after more than three decades of an almost uninterrupted freefall. Finally, the pathologies that still afflict us are serious, and evidently continue to be immune to the otherwise improving trend.
Thus, our popular culture remains, in many respects, a cesspool of violence and vulgarity. The “soft nihilism” and cultural relativism about which Allan Bloom wrote so powerfully in the late 1980’s are still with us, and at the same time many of our leading universities remain beholden to a radical leftist ideology. The yoking-together of these two syndromes may be even more widespread today than yesterday.
Perhaps most importantly, some of the most vital social indicators of all—those regarding the condition and strength of the American family—have so far refused to turn upward. Even as the teenage birth rate has fallen, out-of-wedlock births in general have reached an all-time high: 37 percent of all births in 2005. Over half of all marriages are now preceded by a period of unmarried cohabitation, and marriage rates themselves have declined by almost one-half since 1970.
In the life of any society, the place of the family is central. That fact alone makes these last statistics significant, and seriously complicates the picture of dramatic progress in other, related realms. Indeed, the two starkly divergent trends, taken side by side, should cause us to reconsider certain common assumptions concerning just how culture, behavior, family, and society interact, and how they change.
The most striking element of the overall picture continues to be the extraordinary turnaround in nearly every area apart from the family. The progress we have witnessed over the last 15 years is impressive, undeniable, and beyond what most people thought possible. There was, it is fair to say, essentially no one in the early 1990’s who predicted it. How, then, did it happen?
Obviously, no single explanation will suffice. Instead, long-overdue changes in government policy appear to have combined with a more or less simultaneous shift in public attitudes, with each sustaining and feeding the other. We may begin with the change in policy, for if the last fifteen years demonstrate anything, it is the enduring power of policy, properly understood, to influence culture.
The 1996 welfare-reform bill was the most dramatic and successful social innovation in decades, reversing 60 years of federal policy that had long since grown not just useless but positively counterproductive. In effect, the new law ended the legal entitlement to federally funded welfare benefits, imposing a five-year time limit on the receipt of such benefits and requiring a large percentage of current recipients to seek and obtain work.
When the bill was passed, there were dire predictions, mostly emanating from liberals, of an explosion of poverty and hunger. They were just as quickly refuted. State welfare rolls plummeted—and poverty, instead of rising, decreased. Welfare reform sent a message in bright neon lights: higher expectations will yield better results. Rather than giving up on the poor, the new policy assumed that the able-bodied were capable of working, expected them to work, and was rooted in a confident belief that, materially and otherwise, they would be better off for it. In each of these particulars, the policy makers proved correct. If, as the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote in the 1990’s, our old social policy had “succeeded in ‘demoralizing’ . . . society itself,” the new policy proved to be profoundly re-moralizing.
Crime rates, too, benefited from something of a policy revolution over the course of the 90’s. Applying methods and concepts developed by James Q. Wilson, George L. Kelling, and others, innovators like then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in New York City and his police chief William Bratton pursued a zero-tolerance approach to crime that quickly became a model for other cities and states. Incarceration rates rose, policing improved, crime data were processed faster, criminal patterns were identified more effectively—all of which furthered the twin goals of intervention and prevention. Similar gains were posted by programs like Philadelphia’s Youth Violence Reduction Partnership, in which an array of urban agencies, working together, drove down homicide rates in the most violent parts of the city by focusing on youths most at risk of killing or being killed.
The progress we have made against drug use appears in large part to be another product of a reformed government policy. By the late 1980’s, in the heyday of the crack epidemic, drugs had come to be regarded as our most serious domestic challenge, and formed the subject of President George H.W. Bush’s first prime-time address to the nation. Discarding the piecemeal approach of the past, which concentrated now on one, now on another point of the drug-use continuum, Bush forged an integrated approach, applying pressure on all fronts: law enforcement, prevention, treatment, interdiction, and education. A critical element in the campaign was a public-awareness effort centered on the explicitly moral argument that drug use degrades human character.
The consequences were swift in arriving. If, in the 1970’s, drug use had been widely seen as liberating and glamorous, by the late 1980’s it was coming to be perceived as both dangerous and dumb. During the Clinton presidency, the drug issue was allowed to fade from attention, but since then national policy has returned to its former levels of efficacy, and the statistics reflect the encouraging results.
In education, the emphasis placed by government at every level on testing, accountability, and transparency has unquestionably made a difference. Every state now applies statewide academic standards, which, though in many cases still not high enough, at least measure performance against identifiable benchmarks. While the details of the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind program have been controversial, its general approach has come to be broadly accepted—and has produced results. In the meantime, the rise in charter schools and publicly funded school-choice programs, along with the advent of “virtual” education, has created many more options for American families.
As for the decrease in abortions, it seems to have been influenced less by policy than by the changing terms of public debate and, more importantly, by increasingly responsible attitudes among the young. Two decades ago, pro-life spokesmen changed their rhetorical tactics and began to choose their fights more carefully. The clear-cut issue of partial-birth abortion, although not settled legislatively until 2003, colored the abortion debate throughout much of the 1990’s, in the process creating greater sympathy for a moderately pro-life position. And the pro-abortion Left likewise softened its rhetoric, evidently reasoning that a more cautious approach, as encapsulated in Bill Clinton’s promise to make abortion “safe, legal, and rare,” was likelier to draw support. As a result, some of the more extreme arguments for unrestricted abortion rights slowly dropped by the wayside.
Other factors played a role as well, including the efforts of pro-life groups to assist women with unwanted pregnancies, the greater availability of birth control, and advances in our scientific understanding of fetal development. Contributing to the rethinking was the more widespread use of sonogram technology, which enables would-be parents to see the developing child and its human form at a very early stage. 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 Harris poll found that Americans aged eighteen to thirty were the most likely of all age groups to oppose the practice. This trend seems likely to continue.
With the abortion issue, we have already moved from a change brought about in large part by government policy to one arising mainly through the (sometimes heated) give-and-take of public discussion and the slow, subterranean shifting of social attitudes. The same may be said of the drop in the divorce rate, which has been going on for a couple of decades now. This appears almost entirely attributable to the changed attitudes of well-educated Americans, whose views on the matter have grown decidedly less permissive.
How so? According to Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia, college-educated Americans have absorbed the message—from the media, religious institutions, civic organizations, and their own experience—that children do best when born to and raised by married parents. As a corollary, these educated Americans seem more and more willing to make the sacrifices necessary to stay married, for the sake of both their own welfare and that of their children.
Wilcox adduces two additional facts to round out the picture of a declining divorce rate. First, we now see very few teen marriages—a good thing not only for teenagers unprepared for the burdens of married life but for the institution of marriage altogether, since partners in their twenties or thirties are more likely to place a premium on stability. Second, marriage is much more selective. Because those marrying tend to have more income, more social skills, more of a stake in marriage, and more pro-marriage attitudes, they are less likely to divorce.
This is all to the good—as far as it goes. The downside is that it seems only to apply to those with higher levels of education. Among less educated Americans, divorce rates have not fallen at all. And here we confront once more the cluster of family-related issues where, as we have seen, the indicators remain stubbornly and perplexingly worrisome.
How to account for the anomalous absence of improvement or, more precisely, the acceleration of decline in the overall marriage rate, in rates of cohabitation without marriage, and in illegitimacy? And suppose that, in 1992, you had known that the picture in these crucial areas of family life would continue to be at least as dark in 2007, if not darker. Would you not also have predicted a similarly dismal profile in the related areas of crime, drug use, welfare, education, teen sexual activity, teen suicides, abortion, and poverty?
In fact, just that kind of linkage was behind many of the most dire forecasts of the 1990’s. In 1993, reviewing national figures on illegitimacy, then at just under 30 percent of all births (by 2005, as we have noted, they would reach 37 percent), the social scientist Charles Murray wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “every once in a while the sky really is falling.”
Murray is no inveterate pessimist. It was his creative approach to dependency, as set out in his 1984 book Losing Ground, that laid the intellectual groundwork for the dramatic successes in welfare policy; he is in many ways the father of the 1996 reform bill. Yet, along with many others, Murray believed that rising illegitimacy would lift with it a whole fleet of social pathologies. “Illegitimacy is the single most important social problem of our time,” he wrote, “more important than crime, drugs, poverty, illiteracy, welfare, or homelessness because it drives everything else” (emphasis added).
Murray may well have been correct about the importance of illegitimacy. But he—and not he alone—seems to have been incorrect that it would drive everything else. Over the past fifteen years, on balance, the American family has indeed grown weaker—but almost every other social indicator has improved.
Murray’s dictum could still be borne out in the long run; in time, the explosion of illegitimacy might undo the signs of healthy cultural revival we have charted. Or it may be that the broad improvement in cultural attitudes will in time cast its benefits upon the family as well, helping to curb the seemingly inexorable growth of illegitimacy. Or neither of these may happen, and it may instead turn out that we have underestimated the degree to which improving social factors in other areas can compensate for the enduring damage caused to individuals in broken or never-formed families.
The point is that we do not know everything, and we cannot come to unequivocal conclusions about the future on the basis of the last fifteen years. No trend line runs consistently for long, and no rule is without exceptions. That does not mean, however, that we have learned nothing, or that no lasting lessons can be drawn from our experience.
For one thing, we clearly benefited in the last fifteen years from the fact that, for many years previous, a number of very acute observers were insisting on an honest assessment of where we were and how bad a place it was. This was the necessary first step toward any possible recovery. In time, and with strong leadership, the nation heeded their counsel, instituting wise public policies pursued with energy and resolution. Legislation was far from the only agent responsible for the progress we have seen, but it played a formative role. No small number of our cultural problems had been exacerbated by bad policy; better policy helped ameliorate them. Along the way, it also helped shape moral sentiments for the better.
We have also learned that progress can happen faster than many people thought possible. Despite the good case made by those who believe that diffidence, skepticism, and self-limitation are the prerequisites of sound policymaking, sometimes what is needed is a bold break with the past. There will always be unintended consequences, but even these need not always be for the worse, and the prospect of such unintended consequences should not paralyze us from taking action. Guided by a modest sense of possibility, and by realistic notions of the limits of politics, reform can succeed. Daniel P. Moynihan, right about many things, was wrong in predicting without qualification that the “horror” of welfare reform would bring “loathsome” consequences.
And we have learned the trap of fatalism. In the late 1990’s, Paul Weyrich, a founding leader of the “religious Right,” circulated a public letter declaring that America was “caught up in a cultural collapse of historic proportions, a collapse so great that it simply overwhelms politics.” In the face of this descent into “something approaching barbarism,” Weyrich urged people of faith to adapt a “strategy of separation.” “We need,” he wrote, “some sort of quarantine.”
But no such separation or quarantine is possible; there is no safe harbor to which to retreat. Nor is one necessary. Problems that may seem intractable at one moment—violence and disorder, harmful and reckless conduct—can yield, and yield quickly, to the right policies and to a determined citizenry. Human problems, products of human failings, can be addressed at least in part by human ingenuity.
Culture itself, finally, exhibits an ebb and flow as surely as economies pass through cycles of ups and downs. In The Great Disruption (1999), Francis Fukuyama cited historical examples of societies undergoing periods of moral decline followed by periods of moral recovery. In our case, too, he argued, the aftermath of the cultural breakdown of the 1960’s had already triggered and was now giving way to a reassessment and recovery of social and moral norms. Such “re-norming” will not occur in every social class all at once; in some instances it may take hold in one stratum but not in another. That is partial progress, but progress nevertheless.
Despite persistent anomalies and backslidings, some species of cultural re-norming certainly seems to have been occurring in this country over the past decade-and-a-half, and it is fascinating to observe in whose hearts its effects have registered most strongly. In attitudes toward education, drugs, abortion, religion, marriage, and divorce, the current generation of teenagers and young adults appears in many respects to be more culturally conservative than its immediate predecessors. To any who may have written off American society as incorrigibly corrupt and adrift, these young people offer a powerful reminder of the boundless inner resources still at our disposal, and of our constantly surprising national resilience.