Washington. -- Secretary of Education Richard Riley, the prize of the Clinton cabinet, makes a simple point: "Our children are 20 percent of our population, but 100 percent of our future."
And so, looking at American youngsters is a good way to look at America. Accordingly, I commend to your attention the new edition of "Youth Indicators," published by the National Center for Educational Statistics. The results, as I divine them, are ambiguously clear. There is good news; there is medium news; there is real bad news.
* Good news. In school, many of the things that nice people once wanted to happen, have happened. The high-school dropout rate is near an all-time low, 13 percent. (The rate among blacks is 14 percent, down from 28 percent in 1970.) We spend much more money per child on education: up 38 percent from $3,992 in 1980 to $5,501 in 1992 (constant dollars). Classrooms are less populated: The pupil-teacher ratio has fallen from 27 children per teacher in 1955 to 17 children today.
There's more. Family income went up by 8 percent during the 1980s (before wrinkling down 4 percent in the recession, and now climbing again). Eleven percent of young children lived in an "over-crowded" circumstance in 1975; by 1989 the rate was 7 percent.
Youngsters are less likely to die; since 1960 the death rate for ages 5-14 has declined by 48 percent, and by 7 percent for ages 15-24. (Mostly due to fewer accidents, and fewer deaths from cancer.)
* Medium news. Scores for proficiency in reading, mathematics and science have remained about flat from the 1970s. There has been a small decline in writing proficiency since 1984. At best, things haven't gotten worse.
There has been an increase in reading proficiency among black and Hispanic 17-year-olds. But American youngsters are still at the bottom end of the international spectrum in math, and mildly lower than average in science. At the top of the math-science lists is South Korea; we trail Slovenia, but -- hooray! -- we beat the Kingdom of Jordan, consistently. We are about average in reading. (Secretary Riley's legislative campaign for national educational standards of excellence is the right way to go. It could break up the dumbing down of American schools.)
* Bad news. We are a nation at risk, socially. From 1960 to 1988 the rate of children born to unmarried women soared from 5 percent to 26 percent. (The most recent rate for blacks is 67 percent.) The divorce rate has more than doubled in a generation. At any given moment about a quarter of our children are living in a single-parent family. In 1975, among married couples with children, 41 percent of the mothers worked; in 1991 the figure was 64 percent.
Youngsters with absent fathers and working mothers get less attention. They also commit more crime and are more likely to be victimized by crime. The arrest rate for teen-agers ages 14-17 in 1960 was 47 per thousand. In 1991 it was 132! The "victimization" rate of males ages 16-19 was an incredible 121 per thousand, up from 89 as recently as 1988. Most of the victims suffered "assault." (I mostly blame governments for this. We ought to stop giving welfare to any new out-of-wedlock births to teen- agers. We ought to lock up violent young hoodlums, for a long time.)
Is there hope? You bet there is. Something else comes through in the indicators. These are mostly good kids. A majority (58 percent) says that religion is "very important" or "pretty important" in their lives, a rate that hasn't changed. High-school seniors are much less likely to smoke cigarettes, drink alcoholic beverages, or use drugs. Huge majorities (over 75 percent) still believe that success at work and marriage and family are "very important."
Much more than before, a solid majority of both whites and blacks aspires to a college or post-graduate degree; other millions seek to go beyond high school to junior college or vocational school.
Above all, these youngsters live in a very open and responsive society. We don't do everything right, but we know how to change. There had better be hope. Those kids are 100 percent of our future.
Ben Wattenberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.