In a recent story in the New York Times, we learned that Dr. James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, is starting a new radio show that will “give him greater leeway to hold forth on politics.” In announcing his new venture on his Facebook page, Dobson wrote, “Our nation is facing a crisis that threatens its very existence. We are in a moral decline of shocking dimensions.”
In fact, a great deal of empirical evidence argues that, if anything, we are in the midst of a social and cultural re-norming of some significance. For example, on issues of particular concern to Dobson—abortion and divorce—we have made great strides. The number of abortions performed annually in the United States has dropped to 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 in decades. It fell from a historic high of 22.6 divorces per 1,000 married women in 1980 to 17.5 in 2007. “In real terms,” according to Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia, “this means that slightly more than 40% of contemporary first marriages are likely to end in divorce, down from approximately 50% in 1980. Perhaps even more important, recent declines in divorce suggest that a clear majority of children who are now born to married couples will grow up with their married mothers and fathers.”
There is more good news. Since the high-water mark of 1994, the national welfare caseload has declined by around 60 percent. Teen drug use has declined significantly since the 1990s; so has the birth rate for teenagers aged 15 to 19. The number of high-school students who have reported ever having sexual intercourse has dropped as well. Teen use of alcohol and binge drinking have also fallen sharply. (For more, see here.)
By 2008, the murder rate had dropped to the lowest level since 1965. And given the preliminary figures released by the FBI a few weeks ago, the rate for 2009 should be lower still. As the Washington Post put it, “if present trends continue, America will experience a degree of public safety not known since the 1950s.” (You can go here for a more detailed discussion on the latest crime data.)
The reasons for this progress is varied; some of it has to do with shifts in public policy, while others have to do with shifts in public attitudes. In some instances it’s a combination of both, as well as other factors. Nor does the progress we’ve made in areas like crime, welfare, and the rest mean that all is well with American society. The out-of-wedlock birth ratio and the number of people cohabiting are at record highs, for example (even as almost every other indicator has gotten better to substantially better). In addition, the moral condition of society is not simply reducible to empirical analysis. On the other hand, neither should it be isolated from it.
There is, in fact, reason for encouragement in a number of areas, lessons to learn, things to build on. It is a time, I would think, for measured optimism rather than existential alarm. The United States has once again proven to be a remarkably strong and resilient country, with an impressive—and for some, a surprising—capacity for self-renewal.