Sometimes we’re so deep in the forest, with so many individual trees up close and personal, that we can’t discern the shape or condition of the whole. That’s where statistics come in. New York Times columnist David Brooks points out a plethora of statistics that show distinct improvement in many areas in the past ten years. Family violence, death by drunk driving, teenage pregnancy, and children in poverty – even the divorce rate – all are down. What’s going on? Brooks mentions four factors:
The first thing that has happened is that people have stopped believing in stupid ideas: that the traditional family is obsolete, that drugs are liberating, that it is every adolescent’s social duty to be a rebel.
The second thing that has happened is that many Americans have become better parents. Time diary studies reveal that parents now spend more time actively engaged with kids, even though both parents are more likely to work outside the home.
Third, many people in the younger generation, under age 30 or so, are reacting against the culture of divorce. They are trying to lead lives that are more stable than the ones their parents led. Post-boomers behave better than the baby boomers did.
Fourth, over the past few decades, neighborhood and charitable groups have emerged to help people lead more organized lives, even in the absence of cohesive families.
As Christians we can give thanks for these trends, pray that they continue, and apply ourselves to advancing them in our neck of the woods.
UPDATE: The National Marriage Project at Rutgers University publishes an annual report on the state of families. In the preface to this year’s report, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead writes:
The divorce rate, one indicator of marital stability, continued to drop last year, continuing a downward trend that began around 1980 when the rate was 22.6 per 1000 married women. It fell to 17.7 in 2004 from 18.1 in the prior year. However, the marriage rate, the number of marriages per 1000 unmarried women, has also been droppingâ€”by nearly 50 percent since 1970 when the rate was 76.5. It fell to 39.9 in 2004 from 40.8 the prior year. The number of unwed cohabitating couples continues to rise. Both the percentage of births to unwed mothers and the percentage of children living with a single parent increased slightly, reaching record highs. Overall, except for the drop in divorce, the latest indicators point to little improvement in marital health and wellbeing.
There are some small indications that attitudes among high school seniors are changing in a pro-marriage direction. The percentage of seniors who agreed or mostly agreed with the statement â€œit is usually a good idea for a couple to live together before getting married in order to find out whether they really get alongâ€ has shown a surprising decrease since the late 1990s. The empirical reality that cohabitation is not good for marriage may be becoming more widely known. And of those seniors who expected to marry or were married, the percentage who said that it is likely they will stay married to the same person for life has been increasing, especially among boys. On the other hand, more than 50 percent of both boys and girls now say that â€œhaving a child without being married is experimenting with a worthwhile lifestyle and not affecting anyone else,â€ the percentage having increased sharply over the years, especially among girls.
From what I see it is too early to speak of a “moral revival” in America. A “moral change,” perhaps, where some of the change is for the better, some for the worse, might better describe what we see.