Christopher Jencks

Christopher Jencks is Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. His books include Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America and Black-White Test Score Gap. He is a Prospect contributing editor.

Recent Articles

The Low-Wage Puzzle

When America's most recent economic boom ended in 2001, the economy was turning out $7 trillion worth of consumer goods and services a year -- enough to provide every man, woman and child with almost $25,000 worth of food, housing, transportation, medical care and other things every year. If all that stuff had been divided equally, the typical American household, which now has three members, would have gotten about $75,000 worth. Yet as we see in this issue of the Prospect, based on new research by the Russell Sage and Rockefeller foundations, a lot of Americans had to scrape by on far less than that. Almost one American worker in five reported having been paid less than $8 an hour in 2001. That works out to less than $17,000 a year even if you work full time.

Liberal Lessons from Welfare Reform

When Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) in 1996, the liberal community was almost unanimous in urging President Clinton to veto it. Even people like myself, who had supported Clinton's earlier efforts to "end welfare as we know it," thought that PRWORA went too far. Fortunately for the poor, the first five years of welfare reform inflicted far less economic pain than we had expected.

Can We Put a Time Limit on Welfare?

first results are just beginning to trickle in from
Washington's last venture in welfare reform, the Family Support
of 1988, which sought to cut the welfare rolls by collecting more
child support from absent fathers and giving single mothers more
job training. Not surprisingly, evaluators are finding that
expenditures on job training yield modest increases in welfare
recipients' potential earnings. Faced with such unexciting news,
and mindful of its many previous unsuccessful efforts to make
America's welfare system more acceptable to the public, Congress
now shows little enthusiasm for new legislation in this area.

Do Poor Women Have a Right to Bear Children?

The current movement to reform welfare implies an uncomfortable thought: Perhaps poor women don't have the right to bear children. Are we really prepared to say that?

Affluent adults seldom consider the possibility that others may have to choose between accepting public assistance or dying childless. We prefer to believe that if everyone would act responsibly, they would all be able to support their children without government help. We are particularly keen on three forms of responsible behavior: delaying parenthood until you are in your twenties, getting married before you have children, and staying in school.

The Hidden Paradox of Welfare Reform

If former welfare beneficiaries can get jobs, they'll be better off, right? Not necessarily. Because their costs will be higher, particularly for child care and health care, they may earn more yet do worse.

When Bill Clinton first sought the presidency, he promised to "end
welfare as we know it." Instead of letting single mothers
stay home until their children were fully grown, he argued that
mothers who sought government help should go to work within two
years. Polls showed overwhelming popular support for this change,
but there were two big problems. First, some welfare recipients
are only marginally employable. Second, welfare mothers who find
jobs mostly earn between $5 and $7 an hour. Since that is not
enough to support a family, they still need help paying their
bills if they are to keep their families together.