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Family by Statistics?

Since 1993, former Education Secretary William Bennett has kept a watchful - and conservative - eye on trends that affect almost every American. His latest "Index of Leading Cultural Indicators" is an alarm bell for what he calls "a problem of the first order" - the decline of the American family.

He cites a dramatic increase in the number of out-of-wedlock births (up 18 percent from 1998 to 1999) and a 13 percent increase in single-parent households between 1990 and 1998.

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But the report also notes the number of divorces has gone down a bit, the number of children living in poverty is lower, and the past decade saw a 43 percent decline in the welfare roles.

The abortion rate has dropped for the past 10 years. The index doesn't reflect how minorities and women continue to show improvement - in income, home ownership, educational attainment, and life expectancy.

So are America's families in such bad shape? Or are they just changing in the form and type of relationships?

Such questions are not examined in this study. Overlooked are multiple signs of an increased sense of community, such as the many connections with others that people are finding on the Internet. Also, volunteerism is up significantly. And charitable giving is up more than 200 percent since 1960, with some three-quarters of that coming from individual citizens, suggesting a public not entirely disengaged from a larger sense of family.

So numerical indicators are not the whole story. Rather, they are figures that can suggest - but not ultimately determine - long-term consequences, which, by Mr. Bennett's own admission, are unknown.

This index does point to some good news: Crime is down and more money is being spent on education - evidence that sound government policies can make a difference.

But the idea of family and community is a work in progress for every individual. As poet Robert Frost wrote:

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Home is the place where, when you have to go there,

They have to take you in.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor