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Jewish World Review Nov. 2, 1999 /23 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Mona Charen

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The New Cultural Indicators --
IN RECENT MONTHS, there have been skirmishes among conservatives concerning the latest social trends. Karl Zinsmeister, editor of the American Enterprise Magazine, has trumpeted recent data showing a decline in divorce, welfare dependence, abortion and crime as evidence of a genuine cultural renewal. Robert Bork, John J. DiIulio and Gertrude Himmelfarb, among others, have voiced caution.

Bill Bennett has updated his Index of Leading Cultural Indicators and invites readers to judge for themselves whether we have turned a corner or not.

The news on crime, as everyone knows, is encouraging. The murder rate decreased by 28 percent between 1993 and 1997, bringing the rate down to its lowest level since 1967. In contrast to the popular impression, fewer than 30 percent of all violent crimes involve a firearm. And, again, contrary to popular belief, 93 percent of all guns used in crimes are not obtained by legal purchases (the object of most gun-control efforts).

Not all the crime news is good, however. The female juvenile crime arrest rate jumped almost 42 percent between 1990 and 1997. One reason the crime rate has dropped is suggested by the figures on incarceration.

Between 1990 and 1997, the rate of sentenced prisoners in the United States increased by 50 percent. In 1998, 1.8 million Americans were locked up in state and federal prisons. One out of 20 Americans will serve time in jail sometime during his lifetime. An estimated 28.5 percent of black men, 16 percent of Hispanic men and 4 percent of white men will serve a state or federal prison term.

The out-of-wedlock birth rate has not improved in the past five years. Instead, it has continued to rise. The national rate is now 32.4 percent of all births; 69.2 percent for blacks, 40.9 percent for Hispanics and 25.8 percent for whites.

Only about 50 percent of America's children will live with both of their biological parents for their whole childhood (0 to 18). America has the largest percentage of single-parent families among the industrialized nations. About 40 percent of the children who live in fatherless homes have not seen their fathers in at least one year.

The divorce rate peaked in 1980 and has been inching down slightly since then. Still, America has the highest divorce rate among western nations, and part of the decline in divorce may be attributable to the rise in cohabitation.

Children of divorce display more pathology than do children from intact homes. Remarriage is rarely the answer. Sixty-two percent of remarriages among women under age 40 also end in divorce. If children are present, the rate is even higher.

There are tidbits in this compilation that tell a great deal. In 1999, 60 percent of adolescents ages 12 to 17 had a television in their bedroom. The average American watches more than four hours of television per day. Television violence involving guns increased by 334 percent between 1992 and 1995, and a sexual reference or act occurs once every four minutes during prime time.

In 1998, the Motion Picture Association rated 657 movies. Seven received a rating of NC-17; 428 were rated R; 112 were rated PG-13, 71 were rated PG; 39 were rated G. A total of 66 percent of all rated movies were R or NC-17. At the same time, the average G-rated film produced a 78 percent greater rate of return than the average R movie. So much for the argument that Hollywood is merely "giving the people what they want."

Vice President Al Gore said in New Hampshire the other night that the answer to school violence is more guidance counselors, psychologists, therapists and gun control. He should glance at the data in the index.

The number of guidance counselors in public elementary and secondary schools increased more than 500 percent between 1960 and 1998. During that same period, average verbal SAT scores dropped 49 points and math scores dropped 10 points.

Since 1983, more than 10 million Americans have reached the 12th grade without mastered the basics of reading. More than 20 million reach 12th grade unable to do basic math. And 25 million reach that point without knowing the basics of American history. Things may not be desperate, but they are worrisome.

JWR contributor Mona Charen reads all of her mail. Let her know what you think by clicking here. Please bear in mind, though, that while all letters are read, due to the heavy amount of traffic, not all letters can be answered.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate