I teach sociology at the college level, and in discussions and papers my students often cite various reasons why they’re concerned about the direction the country is heading. I’ve been keeping a list of their most often-expressed concerns; here, without getting into whether or not these developments would actually be bad things for the country (or getting into detail about the complicated reasons for these developments), I simply fact-check the assumptions.
Suicide is on the rise. True. Recent data show that after falling for some time, the U.S. suicide rate started to climb again in the 21st century, driven by a rise in suicide among the middle-aged.
Street gang membership is increasing. True. Extensive efforts to curb street gangs in the 1990s were ineffective at stopping the rise of gang membership, which has continued to rise in this century. Currently there are about 800,000 gang members active in the U.S.
Homelessness is increasing. True. Between 2007 and 2009 alone, homelessness in the U.S. rose by 12%.
Teens are starting to have sex at younger and younger ages. False. The proportion of teens who have ever had sex dropped sharply between 1995 and 2002, and has remained about the same since then.
Teens who have sex are less and less likely to use contraception. False. The use of contraception at first premarital sexual encounter has risen dramatically: from 56% in the 1980s to 84% in the 2000s.
Teen pregnancy is on the rise. False. Though the U.S. teen pregnancy rate remains the highest in the developed world, it’s been decreasing since the 1950s.
Teen drug use is increasing. False. Overall, teen use of illicit drugs is about as prevalent today as it was in 1995. There’s variation by drug, though: in recent years, alcohol abuse and cigarette smoking among teens has dropped somewhat, while marijuana use is on the rise.
The divorce rate continues to climb, and is now at a record high. False. The U.S. divorce rate has been falling since 1981; the proportion of married people who divorce each year is now at its lowest level in over 40 years.
Couples are more and more likely to live together without getting married. True. Unmarried cohabitation has become much more prevalent in the U.S. in recent decades. Today, over half of all women in their 40s and younger have at some point lived with an unmarried partner.
Single parenting is on the rise. True. Today, about a third of U.S. children live in single-parent families.
Economic inequality is on the rise. True. Income inequality in the U.S. has been growing since the 1970s. Actually, though, this was my addition—not a single one of my students has ever mentioned this fact as a cause for concern.
Added, August 2012: Immigrants are less and less likely to try to learn English. False. Evidence shows that today’s non-English-speaking immigrants are learning English more rapidly than 19th century European immigrants did.