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America's Best-Kept Secret: Things Are Going Pretty Well

SOMEWHERE there is a blessed country where life expectancy is up and infant mortality is down; where the rate of deaths on the road is declining and school enrollment and the number of college graduates is increasing; where fewer young people are taking to smoking and drinking alcohol, where the divorce rate is declining and so is the number of young people who own guns.

That country, you may be as surprised as I was to learn, is the United States. That's not all. Religious groups may decry a drift away from spiritual values, but the number of religious congregations stands at 257,648, many of them with more than 2,000 members. Another thing, you keep hearing that people can't afford to own their own homes any more. Would it surprise you to know that last year almost two-thirds of American families - 64.3 percent, which is very close to a record - owned their own homes?

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All this upbeat news comes from a 1,011-page book published by the Census Bureau: ``The 1994 Statistical Abstract of the United States'' or ``Uncle Sam's Almanac,'' as it is familiarly termed.

There's a lot of bad news in the almanac, too. Violent crime increased 41 percent in the 10 years ending in 1992, although it dropped slightly in the last of those years. Juvenile arrests for violent crimes were up 53 percent from 1980 to 1992. Murders with handguns increased from 46 percent to 55 percent in 12 years.

So, the general perception of escalating violence is not a figment of the imagination. But a lot of other perceptions are not supported by the statistics. For example, the widespread impression that polluted air is making it harder and harder to breathe? Well, emissions of carbon monoxide, one of the chief offenders, fell 32 percent between 1980 and 1992, reaching their lowest recorded level.

But carbon monoxide is clearly not what makes Americans oscillate between gloom and rage about their prospects and the prospects for the country. And, while the almanac shows that the American economy grew faster in the past two years than any other industrial nation, including Japan, it also shows that average hourly earnings and average weekly earnings, adjusted for inflation, declined from 1980 to 1993.

It is not the kind of growth that makes wage-earners feel good about their own prospects, and this may help to explain why President Clinton is having so much trouble convincing people how much better things are since he took office.

There are also, in addition to crime, the social maladies the figures reveal that make the country feel not very good about itself. While graduations from high school are up, test scores are sharply down. Births to unmarried women have climbed from 399,000 to 1.2 million annually in 20 years. Yet it should also be noted that abortions have declined.

There are other paradoxes. Book-buying is up, but newspaper circulation is down. Another point: Spending for video and audio equipment, and for cellular phones and personal computers, has exploded. Also, red meat sales are down, and fish sales are up.

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It is a mixed picture we get from the number crunchers, but overall this is a country not happy with itself, although it has much to be happy about. And nowhere is a sullen America better revealed than in the figures on voter turnout. In the last presidential election, 51 percent of qualified voters went to the polls. In the last off-year election, the figure was 33 percent. A turned off electorate is not likely to do much better in next month's elections. Maybe if voters studied Uncle Sam's Almanac and found out how many things are going well, they would be more inclined to vote.

The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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