Revisiting Christopher Jencks, a liberal willing to shift his position

An appetite for empirical data and a willingness to challenge received wisdom

Pat MurphyAmong the activities associated with moving house is the trawl through possessions you haven’t seriously looked at in years. Books are a prime example.

In the process, I reacquainted myself with American social scientist Christopher Jencks.

Born in 1936, Jencks began his career working at the liberal magazine The New Republic and the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies. He was, in his words, a “journalist and political activist.”

Jencks went on to academia, including a Harvard professorship, and wrote scholarly articles, magazine pieces and books. Plenty of them.

Rethinking Social Policy: Race, Poverty, and the Underclass (1992) is one of the most notable of those books. And almost 30 years after I first read it, a revisit proved rewarding.

One of the interesting things about Jencks is the extent to which he values evidence. It’s not that his political views don’t influence his work – they do – but there’s also a significant degree of open-mindedness. Sometimes he’ll even shift position. Plus there’s the fact that he writes clearly, which never hurts.

Empirical data are catnip to Jencks and general readers will discover things they probably didn’t know.

Covering the period of 1972 to 1989, the first data table in Rethinking Social Policy displays the American distribution of household income by ethnic group. That Jews top the ranking by a comfortable margin won’t surprise anyone even mildly conversant with the topic. But the fact that Irish-American Catholics come second – substantially ahead of those defining their ancestry as British – will raise eyebrows. It certainly raised mine.

Click here to downloadOf course, before drawing final conclusions, this would need to be adjusted for factors like household size, age structure, labour force participation and so forth. Still, it says something that an ethnic group purported to have experienced much discrimination and hardship could’ve risen so far within a few generations.

The book’s second chapter, entitled The Safety Net, is an examination of the mid-20th-century expansion of American social welfare spending. Or, to be more precise, it’s an attempted rebuttal of conservative Charles Murray’s proposition that this expansion was not in the long-term interest of the poor. To quote from Murray’s Losing Ground, “We tried to remove the barriers to escape from poverty, and inadvertently built a trap.”

Jencks argues that Murray is plainly wrong in the material sense. On several indicators, the position of poor people clearly improved after social welfare spending increased in the mid-1960s.

Jencks, however, is somewhat less persuasive in addressing Murray’s point about trends in the latent poverty rate, defined as an increase in the percentage of people who would be poor were it not for transfer payments. What Murray sees as an ominous long-term trend in loss of economic independence, Jencks views in more sanguine terms.

That said, Jencks does take issue with many of his fellow liberals: “If we want to promote virtue, we have to reward it. The social policies that prevailed from 1964 to 1980 often seemed to reward vice instead.” In effect, he acknowledges the political and moral implications of the social contract.

If you impose no conditions on helping those who aren’t doing their best to help themselves, you undermine that contract. People feel taken advantage of. Their sense of fairness is violated. Put bluntly, “a policy which is never willing to countenance suffering, however deserved, will not long endure.”

Jencks also wades into other fraught areas. Subjects like the tangled relationships between heredity, inequality and crime get a workout. Inevitably, this draws in the topic of heredity’s influence on IQ.

Again, it’s fairly clear where Jencks’ sympathies lie.

He talks a lot about the interaction between heredity and environment, noting that society has different expectations of different people and thus treats them differently. Behaviour that correlates with observable inherited traits, such as the male tendency towards greater aggression, may be partly attributable to the expectations society sets.

Jencks nonetheless acknowledges that liberal resistance to genetic explanations of human behaviour has an ideological component. And the insistence that genes don’t matter is simply implausible.

Most of us tend to default towards explanations that conform to our prior view of the world. If those explanations are derived from ‘studies,’ the implied aura of ‘science’ clinches the deal.

Jencks is valuable because of both his appetite for empirical data and his willingness to challenge received wisdom, even when that wisdom is personally congenial. While not ideologically or politically neutral, he’s still a relatively rare bird.

Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps a little bit. For interview requests, click here.


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