There are many ways to take a nation's pulse. This country is especially fond of economic and military statistics; we hear a lot about the gross national product, the Consumer Price Index or even relative troop strength in critical areas of the world. But officials don't wait for the release of social indicators with the same anticipation or apprehension that greets monthly unemployment figures or variations in the prime interest rate.
The government doesn't even keep social statistics in a comprehensive way; it's done piecemeal by various departments and agencies. That's too bad, because social indicators tell as much about a country's health as any economic statistic. When policy makers don't take social factors into account, the results can be measured in misdirected resources, failed programs, unhappy taxpayers and -- ultimately -- in blighted, unproductive lives.
For the past 20 years, Marc Miringoff, head of the Fordham University Institute for Innovation in Social Policy, has filled a gap in government record-keeping by compiling an Index of Social Health. The index tracks 17 categories ranging from infant mortality and child abuse to teen-age suicide and the gap between rich and poor.
His latest report is the grimmest yet. It reflects a steady fall in the nation's social health -- a drop, overall, of 51 percent since the index was first compiled more than two decades ago. Based on a possible score of 100, the index began in 1970 with a score of 68. For 1989, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the score fell to 32.9. In five categories, 1989 scores hit their lowest level yet: child abuse, teen-age suicide (which has almost doubled in the past two decades), the gap between rich and poor, the percentage of people not covered by health insurance and out-of-pocket health care costs for people over 65.
Miringoff's numbers are not an exercise in party politics. He rightly points out that the highest scores were achieved under Republican presidents, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, while the long decline began under Democrat Jimmy Carter. But clearly the Index of Social Health holds a message for all politicians and policy makers: It's time for the government to broaden its view of important statistical indicators. No economy can remain strong if its social fabric unravels.