Some Good News

From Steve Johnson:

Are you better off? Is there good evidence for progress?

Over the past two decades, what have the U.S. trends been for the following important measures of social health: high school dropout rates, college enrollment, juvenile crime, drunken driving, traffic deaths, infant mortality, life expectancy, per capita gasoline consumption, workplace injuries, air pollution, divorce, male-female wage equality, charitable giving, voter turnout, per capita GDP and teen pregnancy?

The answer for all of them is the same: The trend is positive. Almost all those varied metrics of social wellness have improved by more than 20% over the past two decades. And that’s not counting the myriad small wonders of modern medicine that have improved our quality of life as well as our longevity: the anti-depressants and insulin pumps and quadruple bypasses.

Americans enjoy longer, healthier lives in more stable families and communities than we did 20 years ago. But other than the crime trends, these facts are rarely reported or shared via word-of-mouth channels.

Many Americans, for instance, are convinced that “half of all marriages end in divorce,” though that hasn’t been the case since the early 1980s, when divorce rates peaked at just over 50%. Since then, they have declined by almost a third.

Americans enjoy longer, healthier lives in more stable families and communities than we did 20 years ago. This is not merely a story of success in advanced industrial countries. The quality-of-life and civic health trends in the developing world are even more dramatic.

Even though the world’s population has doubled over the past 50 years, the percentage living in poverty has declined by 50% over that period. Infant mortality and life expectancy have improved by more than 40% in Latin America since the early 1990s. No country in history has improved its average standard of living faster than China has over the past two decades.


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  • Really? Then. . . what was all that noise we just heard in the election?

  • Josh T.

    I’d like to know how those statistics interact with other not-good trends, like the high un/underemployment problem for college graduates, increased cost of living with stagnant wages, and continued problems in finding adequate employment for many people (including me), and the shrinking middle class. Even if there are a lot of good trends, it seems the bad trends make a lot of people unable to see or at least pay attention to the positive ones.

  • Diane Reynolds

    As one who spent a good deal of time studying marriage stats, I’d like to say that the “declining” divorce rate reflects the decline in marriage during the past 20 years. People who marry are more likely to stay married. However, fewer people, especially in the poorer classes, do marry, and those unmarried cohabitaters tend to have a much poorer prognosis for staying together than married people. Essentially, they “divorce,” but it’s off the books since they never married. If separated cohabitors were added to the divorce rate, the divorce rate would be much worse than what we see. Add to that the women who have children without ever cohabiting and the picture is not an improvement, unless a 35 percent single mother birthrate and large numbers of children in poverty without a father seems a good idea.

  • Jag

    I wonder how the decline in marriage rate here correlates with that in more secular societies. If marriage is defined solely as a Christian institution, then marriage will rise and fall with institutional Christianity, which is shrinking.

    Of course that has to be juxtaposed with how hard gays are fighting for the right to marry.

  • Mike M

    And how does the decline in expected life expectancy for our next generation fit in with this? Or the increase in obesity-related diseases? Or the fact that the annual minimum wage for professionals is less now than 30 years ago, NOT figuring inflation? We’re sicker and poorer than we were even a generation ago.