Jencks, Christopher 1936-
Christopher Jencks is among the most widely respected and influential social scientists in the United States. His career has been driven by an interest in economic opportunity and the welfare of individuals at the bottom of the income distribution. Following a brief tenure as a high school teacher, Jencks entered the social policy world in the early 1960s as a self-described “journalist and political activist,” working at The New Republic and the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-leaning Washington, D.C., think tank. The public impact of the “Coleman Report” (Coleman et al. 1966) impressed Jencks with the power of fact-based social science research to influence public attitudes. He subsequently began a distinguished academic career marked by an adherence to data-driven conclusions that challenge the preconceptions of all ideological perspectives.
He joined the faculty of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s newly formed Center for Educational Policy Research in the late 1960s, where he and his collaborators produced Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America (1972) and Who Gets Ahead? The Determinants of Economic Success in America (1979). Inequality challenged the received wisdom that equalizing educational opportunities would eliminate economic inequality by showing, not uncontroversially, that while both schools and family background have sizable effects on economic success, they still explain only a modest fraction of the total variation in income.
Who Gets Ahead? argues for the importance of cognitive skills and personality, though it also highlights the roles of family background and schooling. The findings in these volumes catalyzed much subsequent research on the causes of economic inequality and on policies to reduce inequality.
In his influential 1992 book, Rethinking Social Policy, Jencks focuses on a set of policy issues that had risen to prominence in the preceding decade—including affirmative action, welfare, and the “underclass.” His measured analyses aim to both illuminate and temper debates over those controversial issues by, as he writes, “unbundl[ing] the empirical and moral assumptions that traditional ideologies tie together” (Jencks 1992, p. 21). For example, while the nature versus nurture debate polarizes individuals on opposite ends of the political spectrum, Jencks argues that the question is neither completely resolvable—since the two interact—nor necessarily relevant to deciding what policy choices are best for dealing with poverty and inequality. Jencks’s research has also challenged the validity of income-based measures of poverty, instead arguing for increased government efforts to directly track material hardship. His ensuing policy recommendations regarding the safety net emphasize both the importance of the responsibilities of society to its members and those of individuals to the collective.
The Homeless (1994) attributes the rise in the number of homeless people in the United States during the 1980s to the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, the crackcocaine epidemic, the rise in longterm joblessness, the decline in the value of welfare benefits, the decline in marriage among women with children, and the decline in the availability of cheap “skid row” housing. It also proposes a series of policies aimed at different groups within the homeless population.
Jencks returned to the potential of human capital policies to reduce inequality in his edited volume (with Meredith Phillips), The Black-White Test Score Gap (1998). Contrary to his prior assertions that human capital policies would have little effect on reducing inequality, he argues that “reducing the test score gap is probably both necessary and sufficient for substantially reducing racial inequality in educational attainment and earnings” (Jencks and Phillips 1998, p. 4). This new conclusion is warranted because “the world has changed” (p. 4).
In addition to his empirically based analyses, Jencks has contributed to philosophical perspectives on the meaning of equal opportunity. Seemingly all political groups in the United States support the ideal of equal opportunity. In his essay, “Whom Must We Treat Equally for Educational Opportunity to be Equal” (1988), Jencks shows that the apparent consensus is due to the multiple meanings attached to the term. While equal opportunity’s popularity is largely due to its pliancy, Jencks laments that this impreciseness ultimately renders it of little use as a guide to policy.
After a career focused on the causes of inequality, Jencks turned his attention to its consequences for social outcomes such as family structure, educational attainment, and civic engagement. Jencks is known for his clear, penetrating writing style, and he frequently publishes in nonacademic venues such as The New York Review of Books and The American Prospect, where he serves on the editorial board. His numerous awards and honors include four book awards and memberships in the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Jencks has been the Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government since 1998.
SEE ALSO Affirmative Action; Class; Education, USA; Equal Opportunity; Family; Homelessness; Human Capital; Income Distribution; Inequality, Income; Poverty; Upward Mobility; Welfare
Coleman, James S., Ernest Q. Campbell, Carol F. Hobson, et al. 1966. Equality of Educational Opportunity. Washington, DC: National Center for Educational Statistics.
Jencks, Christopher. 1988. Whom Must We Treat Equally for Educational Opportunity to Be Equal? Ethics 98: 518–533.
Jencks, Christopher. 1992. Rethinking Social Policy: Race, Poverty, and the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Jencks, Christopher. 1994. The Homeless. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Jencks, Christopher, Susan Bartlett, Mary Corcoran, et al. 1979. Who Gets Ahead? The Determinants of Economic Success in America. New York: Basic Books.
Jencks, Christopher, and Susan E. Mayer. 1989. Poverty and the Distribution of Material Hardship. The Journal of Human Resources 24: 88–114.
Jencks, Christopher, and Paul Peterson, eds. 1991. The Urban Underclass. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
Jencks, Christopher, and Meredith Phillips, eds. 1998. The Black-White Test Score Gap. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
Jencks, Christopher, and David Riesman. 1968. The Academic Revolution. New York: Doubleday.
Jencks, Christopher, Marshall Smith, Henry Acland, et al. 1972. Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America. New York: Basic Books.
David J. Harding
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