There are many ways to take a nation's pulse. This country is especially fond of economic and military statistics; we hear a lot about the gross national product, the Consumer Price Index or even relative troop strength in critical areas of the world. But officials don't wait for the release of social indicators with the same anticipation or apprehension that greets monthly unemployment figures or variations in the prime interest rate.
The government doesn't even keep social statistics in a comprehensive way; it's done piecemeal by various departments and agencies. That's too bad, because social indicators tell as much about a country's health as any economic statistic. When policy makers don't take social factors into account, the results can be measured in misdirected resources, failed programs, unhappy taxpayers and -- ultimately -- in blighted, unproductive lives.
For the past 20 years, Marc Miringoff, head of the Fordham University Institute for Innovation in Social Policy, has filled a gap in government record-keeping by compiling an Index of Social Health. The index tracks 17 categories ranging from infant mortality and child abuse to teen-age suicide and the gap between rich and poor.