What's Wrong With This Picture?

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It's a bull market, the economy's on a roll, unemployment's way down and so is crime. So as a nation, we're doing great, right?

Wrong. At least, that's the answer you'll find when reviewing 25 years worth of stats collected and crunched in the Index of Social Health, developed by Fordham Institute for Innovation in Social Policy. "A lot of polls ask whether the American dream is more difficult to attain now than it was 20 years ago," says Marc Miringoff, director of the Institute, "And 50 percent of respondents say it is. If things are so much better, why don't we feel that way as a nation?"

That's precisely what Miringoff's index attempts to answer. The index-which indicates our "social health" has been declining since the mid-'70s-measures 16 social factors that affect our lives: infant mortality, child abuse, children in poverty, teen suicide, teen drug abuse, high-school completion, average earnings, health insurance coverage, unemployment, poverty among the elderly, out-of-pocket health costs for the elderly, highway deaths due to alcohol, the homicide rate, affordable housing, food-stamp coverage (which soon won't be considered since the program is ending), and the gap between the rich and the poor.

"In the mid-'70s," says Miringoff, "the 'crocodile jaw' phenomena began: the top jaw-gross domestic product-began rising, and the bottom jaw-social well- being-began to fall. The gap between the two has been widening ever since." Factors that particularly impact the family-teen suicide, child abuse, children living in poverty, low wages and no health insurance coverage-are driving the index down.

Miringoff believes the disparity between the economy and social well-being can be summed up in one word: globalization. "We're having a sea change in the economy unprecedented since World War II," he says. "There are fewer stable jobs, like good factory jobs, with long-term security and benefits."

While economic data is abundant, Miringoff believes the government doesn't gather enough on social health. "You have 30 to 35 reports on durable goods and factory inventories for every one report on teen suicide." And because social data is released so slowly, Miringoff is just now tabulating his 1996 index. "You wouldn't dream of having a stock report every two years, which is how long we have to wait to get our data from the government."

American Demographics' own Index of Well-Being (IWB) considers some social factors, like divorce and crime. But because it factors in fewer of these and considers economic indicators, its average annual increase of 1 percent is closer to the GDP's growth rate of just under 4 percent. But neither index shows the robust increase in social well-being that such a strong economy would suggest.

For April 1998, the IWB edged up to a level of 104.56 from a revised mark of 104.23 in March. This represents a gain of 0.32 percent. Most of the advance in April was due to a 0.72 percent improvement of the leisure sector. Leisure time expanded almost 1 percent while recreation expenditures held steady. Improvement was also shown in the income and employment sector, with both components-disposable income and the employment rate-forging ahead. The consumer attitudes sector climbed 4.59 percent, a rather typical movement for this volatile sector. Giving up ground in April was the productivity and technology sector. Labor productivity held steady, but more energy per unit of production was used by the manufacturing sector. The social and physical environment sector was also on the down side. The number of endangered species held steady at 902, but crime and divorce were up. The current level of the IWB, 104.56, implies that the typical American is 4.56 percent better off than in April 1990, the base period for the Index.

How many students will be in your local school in the year 2008? A recent report, "Projections of Education Statistics to 2008," prepared by the National Center for Education Statistics, says the United States can expect increases in both elementary and secondary enrollments in public and private schools. From 1997 to 2008, the elementary school-age population will grow only 3 percent, compared to the 16 percent increase of the same age group from 1986 to 1997. While this means less need for new elementary schools and teachers in most parts of the country, it means there will be large numbers of new high school students. Some 16.4 million of them are expected to enroll in 2008, up from 14.2 million in 1997.

Public school expenditures are expected to rise to $341.5 billion in 2008, from $269.7 billion in 1997, up 27 percent. This represents an average of $7,622 spent for each public school student in 2008, a rise of 20 percent from 1997. Teachers don't fare as well, however; their expected earnings in 2008 are $38,522, only 3 percent higher than their 1997 earnings. So 2008 will be a good year to be a young student, but a bad year to be a teacher.

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