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Jewish World Review March 16, 2001 / 21 Adar 5761

Morton Kondracke

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Cultural indicators improved during Clinton years. Why? -- THE Clinton paradox continues. Bill Clinton's presidency was a moral disaster, but many cultural indicators improved during his two terms, according to a compilation by one of his major critics, former Education Secretary Bill Bennett.

Bennett's latest "Index of Leading Cultural Indicators" shows that crime rates, juvenile violence, welfare rolls, child poverty and teen suicides all declined during the Clinton years.

On the other hand, there was no improvement - or even retrogression - in drug use, out-of-wedlock births, binge drinking, teen sexual activity, education scores and TV violence during the 1990s.

What can be attributed to Clinton's scandal-ridden presidency? Bennett said in a breakfast session with reporters last week that he isn't sure, but unsurprisingly he is not inclined to give Clinton much credit for improvements.

"Many of these indicators got worse during the Reagan-Bush years and got better during the Clinton years," Bennett admitted. "Good things happened on his watch, but to give him the credit on that account is ridiculous.

"I'd say his role was passive. He did sign welfare reform, which was a significant development; but he had to be dragged kicking and screaming into it.

"Crime went down because lots of bad guys were sent to prison," he continued. "But this may have been the result of policies put into effect under Reagan and Bush. What the long-run Clinton effect will be, I can't say."

Bennett has long been among Clinton's most vociferous and eloquent critics. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he published "The Death of Outrage," a book that charged Clinton with "reckless and irresponsible private behavior, habitual lying, abuse of power.

"Bill Clinton is a reproach," Bennett wrote. "He has defiled the office of the presidency of the United States."

And yet, lots of things improved under Clinton, both economically and socially, and his presidential approval ratings reflected this. Supporters cite the statistics as part of his legacy.

According to Bennett's latest index, the nation's crime rate dropped 24 percent from 1992 to 1999, and violent crime dropped 30 percent. There was also a 7 percent decrease in juvenile arrests for violent crimes.

The number of inmates in state and federal prisons increased by 61 percent during the Clinton years, though during the Reagan-Bush years, it jumped 170 percent.

In practically every social category, improvements during the 1990s failed to bring the nation anywhere near the point where social dislocation began in the 1960s.

The violent crime rate in 1999 was 226 percent higher than in 1960. Average Scholastic Aptitude Test scores jumped 19 points from 1992 to 1999, but they were still 55 points below the 1960 average.

Reported use of illegal drugs increased by 16 percent during the Clinton years, but 52 percent from 1979 to 1999. The number of U.S. children born out of wedlock rose from 30 percent to 32 percent under the Clinton administration, but in 1960 the figure was only 5 percent.

One U.S. statistic that has shown significant improvement since 1960 is the child poverty rate. It was 26.9 percent in 1960, 22 percent in 1992 and 17 percent in 1999. The percentage of the population on welfare went down by half during the Clinton years.

Still, Bennett expressed concern that the forces tearing down American life, including TV violence and sexual explicitness, are not being adequately counterbalanced by families, schools, churches and other institutions.

The average U.S. household watches more than seven hours of TV per day. One study cited by Bennett found that depictions of violence and sex and use of coarse language on network programs increased by 500 percent from 1989 to 1999.

Between 1990 and 1998, there was a 16 percent increase in families headed by unmarried parents. Median income for a household headed by a single mother was just $12,000, compared with $52,500 for a two-parent family.

One of the most amazing statistics in Bennett's index is the public's level of trust in government. In 1992 just 29 percent of the public said it could trust government to do what is right most of the time.

In 2000, despite all the questionable conduct of the Clinton years - Travelgate, political use of the Lincoln Bedroom, and impeachment - that number had risen to 42 percent. Go figure.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.


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