Jencks, Christopher. Rethinking Social Policy: Race, Poverty, and the Underclass. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.

This book has influenced my thinking about social policy more than any other book. While it is twenty-five years old, it is still well worth reading, especially by young people with an interest in social policy and by legislators and their aides.

The book thoughtfully and pragmatically addresses many serious social problems that are still with us–and in some cases these‎ problems have gotten worse, not better over the last quarter century. Reading Rethinking Social Policy can help us to recalibrate our thinking about many of the issues that are responsible for today’s polarized political environment back to pragmatic and well-informed space.

The importance of making policy “by getting the facts more or less right” is the overarching theme of Rethinking Social Policy.  Professor Jencks states that “If this book encourages readers to think about social policy more concretely ‎[emphasis mine] it will have served its primary purpose.” This is especially important advice today since hyperpartisan, sensationalized news has become the norm.

Chapter One of Rethinking Social Policy discusses affirmative action. Chapter Two discusses the effects of the social safety net on alleviating poverty. Chapter Three discusses the effects of heredity on inequality and whether heredity’s effects, if any, matter, as well as heredity’s and economic inequality’s effects on one’s propensity to commit violent crime. (While this subject matter itself is problematic to discuss today, at the time Professor Jencks wrote this book it was an oft-discussed subject, and in this chapter Professor Jencks refutes many of claims made by others.) Chapter Four discusses the ‎cultural differences between the poor and the non-poor, and whether these differences are a consequence of poverty or a cause of poverty. Chapter Five addresses additional issues regarding poverty and it’s causes. ‎The last chapter, Chapter Six, discusses welfare issues. It is particularly interesting because subsequently-enacted welfare reform legislation in 1996 has addressed some of the issues raised in the chapter. 1

In Professor Jencks’ words, “This book addresses questions that have divided liberals from conservatives for many years. It includes many arguments that will offend orthodox liberals and others that will offend orthodox conservatives. The reader who infers that I am neither is correct. But the book does not propose a coherent alternative to traditional liberalism or conservatism. If it has a single consistent message, it is that all such ideologies lead to bad social policy.”2

Jencks says that “Any successful ideology, be it radical, liberal or conservative must combine a small number of assumptions about how the world ought to work with a large number of assumptions about how the world really does work.” I know a lot of people in their late Twenties and early Thirties who are active in social policy endeavors. I suspect that their own growing experiences likely dovetail with this advice from Professor Jencks.

Here may be, in my view, the single wisest piece of advice that Professor Jencks gives in Rethinking Social Policy: “No successful ideology can afford to assume that the real-world costs of achieving it’s moral goals are high.”‎

Professor Jencks also states that ‘If we want to reduce poverty, joblessness, illiteracy, violence or despair, we will surely need to change our institutions and attitudes in hundreds of small ways, not in one big way.’ 3 This is sage advice, though it does not mean that these small things shouldn’t be tied together by some coherent overarching agenda–in the case of Liberal Republicanism, I would argue, that should be a focus on equality of opportunity. And the good news about the need to change our institutions and attitudes in a hundred small ways, not in one big way, is that lots of small changes are more easily accomplished than a few huge ones, and that so many more of us can contribute to making them happen.


1 ‎ Professor Jencks’ articles regarding the 1996 welfare reform legislation published in The New York Review of Books after Rethinking Social Policy was published in 1992 are well worth reading. ‎

2 Lee Kuan Yew was perhaps the most successful statesman of the second half of the Twentieth Century. Under his leadership, The Republic of Singapore developed from “third world to first”, with its per capita income increasing a hundredfold in the first fifty years of its independence and it developing world class education and health systems that are broadly enjoyed. According to Lee Kuan Yew, “We were not ideologues. We did not believe in theories as such…What we faced was a real problem of human beings looking for work, to be paid, to buy their food, their clothes, their homes, and to bring their children up….[W]e were sufficiently practical and pragmatic enough not to be cluttered up and inhibited by theories. If a thing works, let us work it…”See‎ Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, The United States, and The World, p. 315‎

3 James Forman, Jr.’s book Locking Up Our Own and his article “Racial Critiques of Mass Incarceration” similarly ‎emphasize “getting the facts more or less right” and to being pragmatic rather than overly passionate. [link here] Also, like Professor Jencks, Professor Forman understands the need for “changing our institutions and attitudes in hundreds of small ways, not in one big way.” Or, in Professor Forman’s words in Locking Up Our Own, “I have described mass incarceration as the result of a series of small decisions, likely to have to be undone in the same way.”‎