Increases in child abuse and child poverty have driven the nation's social well-being to its lowest point in two decades, according to a study being released today by social scientists at Fordham University.
The scientists also evaluated Americans' confidence in their quality of life, and they said it was strikingly low.
The seventh annual report, "The Index of Social Health," attempts to monitor the well-being of American society by examining statistics from reports by the Census Bureau on 16 major social problems, including teen-age suicide, unemployment, drug abuse, the dropout rate and the lack of affordable housing.
Aided by a computer model, the researchers use the statistics from the 16 categories to reach a single figure between 0 and 100, which they call the index of social health.
The first year for which the scientists measured social health, 1970, had an index of 75, which the researchers said was above average. But in 1991, the most recent year for which complete data was available, the index was 36, down from 42 in 1990 and less than half the highest index rating of 79 in 1972.
The 1991 figure is "awful," said Dr. Marc L. Miringoff, the author of the study and the director of the Fordham University Institute for Innovation in Social Policy in Tarrytown, N.Y.
"These results reveal as much about what is happening to us as the economic indicators that we watch closely every day," he said.
Two major reasons for the drop, Dr. Miringoff said, are that child abuse reached its worst recorded level and that the number of children living in poverty reached its worst level since 1983.
Also eroding society's health was a decline in average weekly earnings, he said. "The decline in the economy has much to do with the decline in our social health," Dr. Miringoff said. "Especially the economic factors that affect the labor market. Simply, there are a lot fewer jobs now that people can depend on for stable long-term employment."
Two of the social index indicators did improve in 1991: infant mortality and food stamp coverage.
The telephone survey was conducted with Yankelovich Partners Inc., a research firm in Westport, Conn., from May 27 to June 7. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points.