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Rethinking Social Policy

Rethinking Social Policy

Race, Poverty, and the Underclass

Christopher Jencks

ISBN 9780674766785

Publication date: 02/01/1992

In a fervent appeal for clearer thinking on social issues, Christopher Jencks reexamines the way Americans think about race, poverty, crime, heredity, welfare, and the underclass. Arguing that neither liberal nor conservative ideas about these issues withstand close scrutiny, he calls for less emphasis on political principles and more attention to specific programs. Jencks describes how welfare policy was dominated in the early 1980s by conservatives who promoted ideas that justified cutting back sharply on the social programs of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. They believed that a period of sustained economic growth, with low taxes and free markets, would do more to help poor people than coddling them with government assistance.

Despite the economic expansion of the later Reagan years, however, the problems of persistent poverty grew even more serious. The liberals took the initiative in the late 1980s, but their proposals failed to win broad popular support. With clarity and a gift for apt analogy, Jencks analyzes influential books on such subjects as affirmative action (Thomas Sowell), the “safety net” (Charles Murray), the effects of heredity on learning and propensity to commit crime (James Q. Wilson and Richard Herrnstein), ghetto culture and the underclass (William J. Wilson). His intention throughout is “to unbundle the empirical and moral assumptions that traditional ideologies tie together, making the reader's picture of the world more complicated”—in other words, to force us (readers and policymakers) to look at the way various remedial plans actually succeed or fail.

For example, he believes that until we transform AFDC so that it reinforces rather than subverts American ideals about work and marriage, efforts to build a humane welfare state will never succeed. Other prescriptions, initially surprising and sometimes shocking, show demonstrable good sense once they are examined. As the author says, “If this book encourages readers to think about social policy more concretely, it will have served its primary purpose.”


  • The essays [in this book] deal with such widely contested matters as affirmative action; the argument—associated with Charles Murray’s influential book ‘Losing Ground’—that welfare creates the conditions it purports to eliminate; the nature-versus-nurture controversy with reference to crime; the analysis by the University of Chicago sociologist William Julius Wilson of the urban ghetto; trends in the size of the American underclass; and the need for reform on welfare policies toward single mothers… Mr. Jencks’s capacity to zero in on the relevant statistics, his down-to-earth sense of reality, his way of pinpointing areas of ignorance in which ideology often outpaces limited data, and his unpretentious moral judgments, which are utterly lacking in self-righteousness, are exemplary. Christopher Jencks, I am fully persuaded, is a national resource.

    —Dennis H. Wrong, New York Times Book Review


  • Christopher Jencks is John D. MacArthur Professor of Sociology and Urban Affairs at Northwestern University.

Book Details

  • 272 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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