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

America's Next Achievement Test

Despite significant improvement in recent decades, blacks still score consistently lower than whites on tests of academic performance. But recent studies show that the gap is not genetic in origin and suggest how it can be closed.

African Americans currently score lower than European Americans on vocabulary, reading, and math tests, as well as on tests that claim to measure scholastic aptitude and intelligence. This gap appears before children enter kindergarten, and it persists into adulthood. It has narrowed since 1970, but the median American black still scores below 75 percent of American whites on most standardized tests. On some tests the typical American black scores below more than 85 percent of whites. The black-white test score gap does not appear to be an inevitable fact of nature. It is true that the gap shrinks only a little when black and white children attend the same schools. It is also true that the gap shrinks only a little when black and white families have the same amount of schooling, the same income, and the same wealth. But despite endless speculation, no one has found genetic evidence indicating that blacks have less innate intellectual ability than whites. Thus while it is clear that...

Without a Net

The welfare rolls have fallen by almost half since 1994. To assess the impact of this dramatic change, both journalists and social scientists have been talking to families that have left the rolls. But these families are only half the story. Even without welfare reform, nearly half the single mothers on the rolls in 1994 would have left by 1999 simply because their children grew older, they found work, or they got married. But in the absence of welfare reform, most of these mothers would have been replaced by other mothers who had just had their first baby, split up with their husband, or lost their job. Because states have made it far more difficult to get on welfare, most of those who left the rolls were not replaced. The only way to assess the overall impact of welfare reform is to ask how life has changed for all single mothers, including those who no longer even apply for welfare. The most up-to-date information on single mothers comes from the Census Bureau's Current Population...

Controversy: The Black-White Test Score Gap

The question of persistent racial differences in tested cognitive ability has long been politically awkward for liberals. In "America's Next Achievement Test," which appeared in our September-October 1998 issue, Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips confronted that awkwardness, proposing that closing the black-white test score gap could possibly "do more to promote racial equality than any other strategy that commands broad political support." Drawing on a range of evidence, Jencks and Phillips demonstrated that because the large gap between blacks and whites on tests of cognitive skills has narrowed in recent years, it must be to a significant extent malleable. They also proposed that changing parenting practices and making a greater social investment in early cognitive development were among the most promising avenues for narrowing the gap still further in the future. Finally, in a significant revision of what Jencks had found some 25 years earlier, the authors concluded that...

Is Violent Crime Increasing?

Almost without exception, Americans believe that violent crime is increasing. In the short run, they are right: Violent crime did increase between 1985 and 1990. But what really worries most people is not the short-run trend but their sense that violent crime has been climbing steadily for a long time and that the future will only bring further increases. Such worries are linked to anxiety about drugs, permissive childrearing, hedonism, declining academic standards, the growth of the ghetto underclass, and our collective inability to compete with the Japanese. Taken together, these fears have convinced many sensible people that American society is on the skids. America certainly has more violence than other rich countries. Murder rates are far higher in the United States than in Europe, Japan, or even Canada. We also have more rapes, robberies, and assaults than other rich countries. But this is nothing new. Crime rates have always been much higher in America than in other affluent...

The Real Welfare Problem

The Family Support Act, America's most recent effort at welfare reform, begins to take effect this year. The new law seeks to get single mothers off welfare through a combination of job training, work requirements, child care subsidies, and child support enforcement. Cutting the welfare rolls is, in turn, supposed to save the taxpayer money while enhancing the self-respect of single mothers and their children. Like countless earlier attempts at welfare reform, the new law is unlikely to change much. Judging by the experience of states that have already established compulsory training programs and work requirements, it will not save the taxpayer much money. Nor will it move many single mothers off the welfare rolls. The reason is simple: single mothers do not turn to welfare because they are pathologically dependent on handouts or unusually reluctant to work. They turn to welfare because they cannot get jobs that pay any better than welfare. Since the new law will not do much to change...

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