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.”