As Americans prepare to give thanks, let's note positive trends that provide reasons for optimism.
These days it can seem like all news, or much of it, is bad. There is a dysfunctional Congress, an Obamacare law that doesn't work as promised, and a job market that seems stuck in first gear.
But not everything is gloomy. In fact, as Americans prepare to give thanks, many positive trends and developments — some of which don't get as much attention as they deserve — provide reasons for optimism.
Here are just a handful:
Diplomas rise. The percentage of kids graduating from high school increased by 6 percentage points in the first decade of the 21st century, according to research from Harvard University.
High school dropouts account for about 75% of all crimes, and earn about $200,000 less over their lives than people with degrees. So it is in the nation's interest that graduation rates be as high as possible.
In the last century, the high school graduation rate rose from just 6% in 1900 to 80% in 1970, fueled by the enormous social and economic progress the nation made during that period. But during the next 30 years, the graduation rate stagnated and even dropped a bit. Since 2000, it has trended upward and is now roughly 84%.
The Harvard study attributes the gains to improved education in the lower grades combined with two other trends that are themselves positive: fewer kids being arrested, and fewer girls getting pregnant.
Energy expands. Virtually no one would have predicted it a decade ago, but the United States is practically awash in oil and natural gas.
The International Energy Agency predicts that the United States will surpass Saudi Arabia as the world's largest oil producer by 2016. Natural gas reserves have grown so much that ports built to import liquefied gas are now starting to export it.
This makes America less dependent on unstable regions of the world such as the Middle East. It also has a number of positive economic and even environmental impacts.
Increased supplies have helped nudge gasoline prices down, which puts more money into people's pockets to spend on other things. They have also helped fuel a modest rebound in manufacturing. Since the beginning of 2010, some 526,000 manufacturing jobs have been created. While that may not be a huge number, it represents the first sustained uptick since manufacturing jobs started a long, slow decline in the 1970s.
On the environmental front, the drilling technique known as fracking raises concerns, but expanded use of natural gas is a plus. In the last year, power plants have eliminated some 16,000 megawatts of production from coal, which emits twice as much carbon dioxide as gas. That is enough to power 16 million homes.
Generosity abounds. Hardly a day goes by when some instance of people helping out others doesn't come to light. Sports teams at all levels routinely give exceptional access to kids with special needs or chronic health conditions. Communities often designate days to highlight people in need.
Perhaps nothing illustrates this more than the recent effort in San Francisco to allow Miles Scott, a 5-year-old leukemia patient, to play Batkid for a day. The mayor, the police chief and hundreds of volunteers got involved. And at the end of the day, thousands of San Franciscans showed up to see the child introduced.
This episode, and others like it, illustrates the role that social media can play in spreading charitable acts. As Police Chief Greg Suhr said, the city often works with groups such as the Special Olympics and the Make-a-Wish Foundation, which is how Scott came to his attention. But in this case, the story took off on social media, which drew in more San Franciscans wanting to be part of the good deed.
Stocks soar. The Dow Jones industrial average has set 43 all-time highs this year, most recently on Tuesday when it closed at 16,073. The Dow is up 84% since Thanksgiving five years ago, and 146% since the market lows of March 2009.
This is good news for several reasons. The first, obviously, is that people get richer with a rising market. Some 52% of Americans own stock, either individually or in mutual funds. Millions more could if they wished. Before the 2008 economic crisis, 65% owned stock, but many dropped out because of fear or hardship.
A rising stock market gives shareholders more confidence to spend and invest, and it also means higher tax receipts on gains and dividends, which push budget deficits down.
Whether the good times on Wall Street spill over to Main Street remains to be seen, but positive signals abound. State and local governments, which shed more than 800,000 jobs beginning in 2009, have gotten through the worst and in some cases are actually hiring again. Meanwhile, as labor costs and the hassles of doing business in places such as China and India rise, some companies have been moving jobs back home.
Homelessness falls. Earlier this year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated the U.S. homeless population at 610,042, about two-thirds in shelters and one-third on the street. That is 4% less than in 2012 and 9%less than in 2007, when the economy was much stronger.
The number of people living on the streets has declined significantly more — by 23% since 2007 — thanks largely to efforts by the Bush and Obama administrations to provide housing vouchers for the chronically homeless, particularly veterans.
HUD officials warn that the "sequestration" budget cuts could cause the numbers to start rising again. Others believe HUD undercounts the homeless. Even so, as you sit down to your holiday meal, it's worth giving thanks that you've got a roof over your head, and more of your fellow Americans do, too.
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