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The social health of the United States declined in the first year of the Clinton administration, even as the economy improved, according to an index of government data on social problems.

Researchers at Fordham University say their index reveals a startling trend over the past 20 years: The nation's quality of life has come unhinged from its economic growth."We really have to begin to reassess this notion that the gross domestic product - the overall growth of the society - necessarily is going to produce improvements in the quality of life," said Marc Miringoff, director of Ford-ham's Institute for Innovation in Social Policy at Tarrytown, N.Y.

"Because if we look at this data, particularly over time . . . it's kind of like a crocodile's jaw opening - the two lines, one going up and one going down."

Miringoff's institute has issued an Index of Social Health for the past nine years, using data - mainly government statistics - that go back to 1970. The index tracks how well American society is doing in 16 areas, including infant mortality, drug abuse, unemployment, access to affordable housing and the gap between rich and poor.

After a brief upswing in 1992 - an election year, Miringoff points out - the index dropped in 1993, the first year of the Clinton presidency and the latest year for which figures are available. The drop continues a trend that dates to the mid 1970s.

The index charts social health on a scale of 0 to 100. For 1993, it dropped two points to 41. Its lowest point was 38 in 1991; the high point was 77.5 in 1973.

In six categories, the index hit its lowest point ever in 1993: children in poverty, child abuse, health insurance coverage, average weekly earnings (adjusted for inflation), out-of-pocket health costs for senior citizens and the gap between rich and poor.

For instance, Miringoff said, 22 percent of the nation's children were living below the poverty line in 1993, up from 14.9 percent in 1970. Average weekly wages, calculated in 1987 dollars, were $255, down from $299 in 1970.

"It is the first social health reading of the Clinton administration, and I think we can say with certainty that this is not getting better under this particular administration," Miringoff said.

He said he wasn't sure what had caused the drop, but that it might be a reflection of federal cuts in social spending.

Miringoff said the index has plotted dramatic improvements over the years in several areas, such as poverty among the elderly, infant mortality and the high-school dropout rate. But they are outweighed by the decline in other categories of social health.

He criticized government leaders for focusing on the nation's economic growth to the exclusion of social health, and said they were increasingly out of touch with the lives of everyday citizens.

"It's almost like flying an airplane, and the airplane is America, and we're looking at one gauge - gross domestic product - and we're saying, `Gee, this thing looks good. I mean, it's growing and we're moving and we're going where we want to go.' And yet, in the plane, there's an increasing sense that something's wrong and the pilots don't know why the passengers are complaining all the time."