Is America headed in the right direction or is it on the wrong track? This is one of the questions we asked (as others have done) in our recent survey of US readers on how they would vote if their elections were “today”, and no less than 93 percent said the country was on the wrong track.

Ask a broad-brush kind of question and you will get a broad-brush answer, which tells you something worth knowing, but, as the 2016 Index of Culture and Opportunity published by The Heritage Foundation last week shows, skates over significant counter evidence – whichever side you are on.

Heritage, a conservative organisation, has crunched national data on 31 indicators and found that one third of them have changed for the better over the past decade. Rates for divorce, abortion and violent crime are down. In education, reading proficiency and the high school graduation rate are up, as also are school choice and participation. There are more job opportunities and more participation in TANF, a federal programme assisting needy families towards independence.

Certainly there is much more on the debit side of the social ledger. In the vital area of culture, the marriage rate continues tracking down along with the birth rate, religious attendance and volunteering; single parent households are up, teen drug use is up, and sexual abstinence amongst teenagers is down. Most of the signposts of poverty and dependence are going the wrong way: the unwed birth rate, welfare, workforce participation. Opportunity indicators including student loan debt, the unemployment rate, federal tax take, start-up job share and economic freedom are also trending negatively.

Taking a closer look at the positive changes there is reason for caution: a long-term decline in the divorce rate (down 40 percent between 1979 and 2014) is partly the result of a negative trend: a long-term decline in the marriage rate which saw a 20 percent drop between 2004 and 2014 (despite a small increase in 2013-2014).

The reasons for the decline in the abortion rate are various, but the net result, writes Randal Wenger on this topic, is “encouraging to those who hope to see human life respected.” Still, nearly one million unborn lives are ended each year in the US, leaving no room for satisfaction with the status quo.

In fact, the existing situation largely supports the view that “America is on the wrong track” in critical areas of culture, economic freedom, and opportunity. For example:

* Self-sufficiency declined between 2004 and 2014 as the poverty rate increased by 2.1 percentage points. The poverty rate has fluctuated only slightly over the past 50 years – since the War on Poverty (or the era of big government) began in 1965.

* The labour force participation rate among working age Americans is at its lowest level since the 1980s and fell during the last decade by 1.9 percentage points. The human toll of unemployment is more than material poverty; it is the loss of a sense of meaning and purpose for individuals and of way to develop their full potential.

* Over 40 percent of children are born outside of marriage every year, and between 2004 and 2014 this number grew by 4.4 percentage points. Children born to married parents are less likely to be poor, yet many policies  do not support marriage or even undermine it.

* Economic freedom continues to decline, falling by 5.8 points between 2006 and 2016, according to Heritage measures. At the same time federal taxation grew to 18.1 percent of GDP, making it harder for working families to succeed and find fulfilment.

All these trends suggest policy changes which Heritage lists on page 8 of its Index. There is much, much more to this report, however, than statistics and trends. There are thoughtful essays introducing each of dozens of sub-topics under the main headings of culture, poverty and dependence, and opportunity.

Crowning these, and pulling all the threads together into a philosophical whole is a marvellous essay by Michael Novak, one of the best-known conservative scholars in the US. In it he identifies the three strands of the American system: “a culture, a polity, an economy—all three in a distinctive framework of checks and balances and obligated to respect the natural rights of every man and woman along with the common good. Each of the three systems of democratic capitalism depends on the other two.”

He elaborates:

The economy cannot work without a polity of law respectful of natural rights, as well as the cultural habits necessary to support all three systems in one;

The polity cannot work without the habits of the heart that respect both the ordi­nances of the law and the rights of every other person in the political system—hab­its that constitute a culture of civic repub­licanism; and

The culture can barely survive under a hostile economic system that is driven by cupidity, envy, smothering control by the state, or personal moral heedlessness. Nor can it survive under a hostile polity that is contemptuous of truth, justice, law, and beauty.

This system has a proven modern record in raising up the poor and advancing human culture, says Novak, but:

Nothing, however, says that such a system cannot burn out into the darkness of human history like a comet. That outcome depends on each succeeding generation. The free society is the most fragile of all societies because any one generation can become oblivious to its multiple living principles, live unworthily of them, hand over the keys, and walk out into darkness.

Only one generation is required. Yet in practice, the downward slide usually begins three or four generations earlier than the final collapse. Our own generation sometimes seems to be hurtling downward.

We have hardly begun to address the rapid decline in the social ecology of our time. Many evils and self-destructive behaviors run rampant. Moral ecology is the new frontier of political economy: the culture in which the free society thrives—or destroys itself.

If that is confirmation that “America is not on the right track” it is also a challenge to any superficial ideas about what the right track is. Renewing a nation’s moral ecology is hard work for everyone; it begins in the home and spreads through the community. It can be helped by the government but it cannot come from the government — certainly not one the US is likely to get soon.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

* 2016 Index of Culture and Opportunity, Edited by Jennifer A. Marshall and Rachel Sheffield, Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity, The Heritage Foundation.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet