The State Of Society
Monday, January 13, 2003
The National Press Club, Washington, DC

In anticipation of President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address, a distinguished panel of experts gathered to discuss the state of society. A summary of panelists’ findings are below.

Amitai Etzioni, University Professor at The George Washington University and director of the Communitarian Network. He presented a paper entitled “The State of Society: A Rush to Pre-9/11," which argued that in many ways American society is “normalizing,” or shaking off the effects of September 11, and that some pre-September 11 trends remain in place over a year after the attack. The major findings of the paper include:

  • The percentage of Americans who were satisfied with the direction of the country surged after September 11, but has fallen to to pre-September 11 levels.
  • American society is slowly returning to its pre-September 11 views on civil liberties.
  • The urge to volunteer that many Americans felt after September 11 is rapidly dissipating.
  • The percentage of Americans who view people as fair and helpful has returned to pre-September 11 levels, while the percentage of Americans who view people as trustworthy has increased slightly since September 11.
  • Both trust in government and favorable opinions of government surged after the terrorist attack, but recently have decreased to near pre-September 11 levels.
  • Airline traffic drastically fell after the terrorist attack, but has gradually been recovering, trending toward pre-September 11 levels.
  • The gradual mend of the family, which was being experienced before September 11, continues, especially in terms of decreasing divorce rates and teen birth rates.
  • Views of business, which were critical prior to September 11, grew even more disparaging in the wake of the business scandals.

Isabel Sawhill, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and president of the Board of Directors of The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. She pointed out four important challenges facing the nation, including national security threats, a sluggish economy and jobless recovery, exploding federal deficits and state budget crises, and domestic social problems. Sawhill believes that, in principle, at least, it is possible to come up with a plan to pay for the war on terrorism, help the economy recover, ask for equal sacrifice from the public, and avoid a tide of red ink. Finally, she raised the possibility that everyone could be asked to contribute to the war on terrorism and to help pay for the war with Iraq once the economy recovers more fully, perhaps through a temporary surtax, similar to the surtax proposed and enacted under President Johnson during the Vietnam War.

Douglas Besharov, professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs and senior scholar at American Enterprise Institute. He provided data showing that the number of families on welfare has declined 59 percent since its most recent peak in 1994. However, recent data, depending on how caseloads are measured, suggest a small increase of about half of a percent in the number of families on welfare through June 2002. In other words, the large decreases in the welfare caseloads that were seen in the latter half of the 1990s seem to have leveled off.

Bill Galston, Saul I. Stern Professor of Civic Engagement, director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland. He presented findings from recent surveys of American young adults. There is an ideological gender gap among college freshmen – college men are significantly less liberal than college women. Galston also notes two paradoxes among young adults: (1) DotNetters (ages 15-25) hold significantly more favorable views of government than their elders, while they are significantly less likely to be interested in public affairs or to vote than their elders; and (2) DotNetters are significantly less likely to trust people than their elders, while they are significantly more likely to express support for tolerance and diversity than their elders.

Kristen Moore, president and senior scholar of Child Trends. She presented findings about the state of American children. Infant mortality rates and child and youth death rates have decreased substantially in the last century, while high school completion rates have increased dramatically. These positive trends are important and worthy of celebration, though it must be noted that new, serious challenges pose themselves and that inequities between races still remain. Among the challenges we face are high rates of drug usage among teens, high suicide rates, high teen birth rates, and high rates of children living in poverty (greater in 2001 than in 1975).

Read the announcement of The State of Society panel discussion.

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