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New Heritage Foundation index warns of cultural decline but also finds signs of hope

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A new report on America's culture shows that while the nation is trending the wrong way on issues like marriage and teen abstinence, abortion and divorce rates are both going down.

In its inaugural "Index of Culture and Opportunity," the Heritage Foundation examined 31 indicators in the four areas of culture, general opportunity, poverty, and dependence to see "how social and economic factors relate to the success of individuals, families, opportunity, and freedom." The indicators they examine include the abortion rate, marriage rate, divorce rate, total fertility rate, abstinence among high-schoolers, and religious attendance, as well education and social welfare spending.

The report, which they plan to release annually, was based on data from the last decade in publicly available resources.

Of the 31 indicators, Heritage says American is "on the right track" in only eight. One is the abortion rate, which "dropped by four abortions per 1,000 women of childbearing age between 2001 and 2011," the organization reports. It is the lowest abortion rate since 1973, according to a short essay in the Index from the Charlotte Lozier Institute's Charles Donovan. Donovan says that regulations "like parental notification, Medicaid funding restrictions, and properly designed informed consent" laws "all reduce the incidence of abortion."

Another indicator in which America is "on the right track" is the divorce rate. While the marriage rate has dropped by 10.3 marriages per 1,000 women aged 15 or older in the last decade, "the divorce rate remained relatively stable, decreasing by .4 divorces per 1,000 people." An essay by National Marriage Project Director Bradford Wilcox notes that the marriage rate has dropped "by approximately 50 percent since the 1960s, and the divorce rate about doubled from 1960 to 1980." But he says the divorce rate has declined since 1980.

According to Wilcox, approximately 50 percent of the nation's adults are married and “about half of the nation's children will spend some time outside an intact, married home." Wilcox blames the low marriage rate on shifts in culture, public policy, and the economy. “Less-educated Americans are less likely to get and stay married,” he notes.

The Index reports that the unwed birth rate increased by 6.7 percentage points from 2002 to 2012.

Brookings Institution's Ron Haskins noted in his Index essay that this growing tendency to bear children outside of marriage is having a dire economic impact. “Nonmarital childbearing is one of the preeminent reasons this nation, despite spending about $1 trillion a year on programs for disadvantaged families, is struggling to reduce poverty and increase economic mobility," he said.

On the rise is the number of single-parent households. The Index shows that from 2003 to 2013, there was an increase of .3 percentage points in the number of single-parent households. Wilcox notes that "children whose parents fail to get, and stay, married ... are more likely to end up pregnant as teenagers, to run afoul of the law, to flounder in school, and to end up idle as adults."

One area of particular concern in the report is America's fertility rate. "Since 1972, it has reached the replacement rate of 2.1 [births per woman] only twice, in 2006 and 2007," says the report. While "fertility rates for white and black Americans ... dropped by 4.3 percent and 7.5 percent, respectively" from 2002 to 2012, writes The Weekly Standard's Jonathan Last in an essay in the Index, "Hispanic Americans ... have seen their fertility rate plummet by 19.2 percent."

Last says there is hope for a trend reversal, but he says that "once a society's idealized fertility rate slips below replacement ... decline is inevitable."

Religious attendance is also on the decline. The Index reports that from 2002 to 2012 the percentage of Americans who attend religious services on a weekly basis dropped by one percentage point. It is down by more than 10 percentage points in the last 40 years, while the percentage of Americans who "rarely/never" attend services has increased from below 30 percent in the early 1970s to well over 40 percent in 2012.

However, these religious attendance numbers do not tell the whole story, says Baylor University professor Byron Johnson. Johnson's Index essay notes that while younger people often do not attend services, "once they marry, and especially once they have children, their attendance rates recover." He also notes that "church membership has reached an all-time high." Many people do not actually leave their faith, he adds. They merely "will attend a church from a denomination different from the one in which they were raised."

Jennifer Marshall, the Heritage Foundation's vice president for the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity, told LifeSiteNews that "the dividing line that's appearing" between "those who are college-educated" and those who lack education is concerning. "Those who are the most vulnerable -- not a lot of education, in lower-economic status already -- are the most likely to have children outside of marriage, and therefore likely to have complicating factors for them and their children,” she said.

Marshall told a group of bloggers that the area of most concern to her is the unwed birth rate. She noted that when the "War on Poverty" began 50 years ago, "the unwed childbearing rate was in the single digits." Now, according to Marshall, "it's over 40 percent. Among blacks, it's 72 percent."

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