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Christopher Jencks Interview


Christopher Jencks is Professor of Social Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. 

He is the author of: Rethinking Social Policy: Race, Poverty, and the Underclass; Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America; The Homeless; and The Black-White Test Score Gap.

Christopher Jencks

New River Media Interview with: Christopher Jencks 
Professor of Social Policy, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

QUESTION: Please summarize what Daniel Patrick Moynihan's report found about the state of the Negro family. 

CHRISTOPHER JENCKS: I think Moynihan's most important finding in the Moynihan Report was the Negro families' stability seemed to be very sensitive to economic conditions, and when economic conditions got worse, the stability of families decline, more men left home, more single parents emerged. So, its looked as if something that would really make a big difference would be try to reduce the unemployment rate and provide stable incomes to the men who might potentially be in those families. 

QUESTION: What is the problem with single family households, illegitimacy - what problems does that cause, let's say for children? 

CHRISTOPHER JENCKS: Well, that's been immensely controversial. Most people think that single parent families have bad effects on children, and there are plausible reasons for that. On the average they're poor, and most people think that poverty is not so good, and so if single parents, or single mothers in particular, are poorer than married couples, there's going to be a negative effect that just flows from the income disadvantage. But for some outcomes, there's also at least some evidence that the presence of two parents is an advantage, even if you hold income constant. 

QUESTION: Moynihan talks also about this 'tangle of pathologies,' as he termed it. How did he perceive illegitimacy fit into this? 

CHRISTOPHER JENCKS: Well, it wasn't clear at the time what effect illegitimacy or, of course back at that time divorce was still a big factor in the African-American community. It isn't clear to what extent either of those things contributed to the tangle of pathologies that he identified, but it seemed reasonable, in the absence of much of any evidence either way, to think there might be a relationship, or at least it certainly seemed until the controversy about the Moynihan report heated up and then people raised all kinds of questions about whether this was really the cause or not. And I think it's fair to say those questions haven't been answered to this day, although I think today most social scientists would agree with Moynihan's view that single parent families really have adverse effects on children and that this contributed to the problems of African-American communities in the 1960s and since, but also now the problems of Latino and white and other communities. Back in the 1960s, many social scientists were very reluctant to make that argument. 

QUESTION: Could you talk a little more about exactly the reception that the Moynihan Report received? 

CHRISTOPHER JENCKS: The Moynihan Report was attacked for all kinds of reasons. I think the most important reason it was attacked was that it seemed to be saying that the problems of black America were attributable, at least in part to choices that black Americans themselves made about what kind of families they were going to live in, and not to discrimination and racism and job opportunities and all that sort of thing. I think that's a misreading of the report because the report actually suggests pretty strongly that if job opportunities were improved, family structure would improve, which is exactly the kind of argument, for example, that William Julius Wilson made 20-odd years later, and many people have made since. 

The biggest criticism of Moynihan, I think, was that many people believed at the time that family patterns in the African-American community had long been very different than they were in the white community, and that this was just an anthropological difference like the differences in family patterns between cultures all over the world, and that to blame what had happened to African-Americans on the way in which they organized their families was to miss the crucial role of racism and oppression, on the history of slavery, and Jim Crow and all that kind of thing, and to sort of shift the focus to our cultural difference, which wasn't in any obvious way any worse - it wasn't obvious to many people that it was any worse to do this the way African-Americans did than the way whites did. So, it was kind of - it was a blaming the victim charge, really. 

QUESTION: What kind of statistical findings set Moynihan on this track of examining the black family? 

CHRISTOPHER JENCKS: At the time that Moynihan was writing, his biggest statistical finding was the relationship between the unemployment rate and the welfare rate, and that was the famous chart in the report. Almost immediately after he wrote that report, these two phenomena became disconnected and he then wrote some other things saying, you know, it looks as if welfare is now rising independent of the unemployment rate. Indeed, in the late 1960s, unemployment fell very drastically to the lowest levels we've had in the last 50 years, and yet the proportion of welfare recipients was going up during that period. So, the law that unemployment engenders welfare use, that he enunciated, broke down almost as soon as he enunciated it. That's, of course, a history of social science laws, is that they tend to break down very soon after they've been announced. Since 1965, the relationship between unemployment and the welfare rolls has been very weak. There's now a big controversy about how much of the drop in the welfare rolls has anything to do with the change in the unemployment rate and how much of it has to do with welfare reform and all of that. 

QUESTION: Let's move to the Coleman Report in 1967. Could you summarize what Coleman found in his report. 

CHRISTOPHER JENCKS: Coleman had two big expectations when he did his report. He thought he was going to find that the schools that black children attended got far less adequate resources than the schools that white children attended, and he thought that he was going to find that the resources that schools got made a big difference to student achievement. Well, what he actually found was a big surprise both to him and to nearly everybody else. First, he found that the differences in resources between the schools that black and white children attended was much, much smaller than either had expected, or I think almost anyone else had expected. And second, he found that those resources at least that he could measure had very small effects on student achievement - regardless of whether the students were black or white. So, that kind of raised a huge question about, well then why was it that black children were doing so badly if it wasn't that they were attending schools that had bigger classes and spent less money, and all that kind of thing. 

What Coleman showed was that the most powerful determinant of student achievement that he could identify was the socio-economic background of the students in a school. The schools with high scores were mostly middle and upper income schools, and the schools with low scores tended to be schools with lots of poor children. He didn't try to show that that explained the whole black-white test score gap. And if you analyze the data subsequently, it didn't explain the whole black-white test score gap. Much of the gap persisted, at least when you measure family background the way that survey measured it. So, it wasn't an adequate explanation for the gap. 

QUESTION: How exactly did he go about collecting his data? 

CHRISTOPHER JENCKS: Well, the 1964 Civil Rights Act required the Commissioner of Education to do a survey of American schools that would collect information about the resources the schools had, and about the teachers that they had, and about the academic achievement of the students in those schools. And what Coleman did that was not completely unprecedented, but certainly hadn't been on a large scale ever before, was to try to link the achievement of the students to the characteristics of the students' parents, and the students' schools, and the students' teachers and to see which factors actually had the biggest influence on, on student achievement. And what he found I think was a big surprise to most people, namely the schools had less influence than most people had expected. 

This was, I believe, the second largest piece of social science research that had ever been done at the time. They surveyed 600,000 students. They surveyed, I believe, about 4,000 schools. This was really a mammoth undertaking. And those data were sort of analyzed and reanalyzed and reanalyzed for many years after Coleman did his work. Most of those analyses supported Coleman's original work, which is an immense tribute to somebody who produced his report, after all, in about three months holed up in a hotel room. The number of social scientists living today who could claim to have ever written a major piece of work in three months is extremely small. In fact, it may be zero, other than Jim Coleman. 

QUESTION: How was the Coleman report received? 

CHRISTOPHER JENCKS: I would say there was much less personal attack on Coleman than there had been on Moynihan. Moynihan was attacked as a racist and all kinds of things, which I think were quite unjustified. Coleman's report was controversial, but there wasn't the same kind of personalizing of it. And one result was that when Moynihan brought out his report the attacks on him deterred any other social scientists from doing much further research in this area. The whole field really just dropped out of existence for 20 years. In the case of Coleman, social scientists rushed into this field and an immense amount of subsequent research was done trying to figure out whether he was right or wrong, or where he was right or wrong, and whether he had used the right methods and all those kinds of things. So, he founded an industry, whereas Moynihan's critics put the industry in the deep freeze for 20 years by the character of the attacks on him. 

QUESTION: What effect did the Moynihan Report, the Coleman Report, and others have on the war on poverty? 

CHRISTOPHER JENCKS: Well, I think the Moynihan Report had rather little impact on the war on poverty, except insofar as Moynihan was perceived as one of the architects of the war on poverty, and so the people who were berating him tended to think that there must be something wrong with the war on poverty because it was conceived by this man, or at least partly helped along by this man whom they were strongly against. 

But the Coleman Report really did undermine one of the fundamental strategies of the war on poverty, which was to improve educational opportunity. It didn't, I think, have a very big practical effect. That is, if you look at what school boards did over the next 20 years, they went on raising school expenditures despite the Coleman Report. But if you looked not at what was done, but what sort of intellectuals thought, then you saw a lot of doubt about the efficacy of sort of education as the strategy for ending poverty in America. 

QUESTION: What happened to crime rates during the 1960s? 

CHRISTOPHER JENCKS: Crime rates in the 1960s pretty clearly went up. It's hard to be absolutely sure about this because the crime statistics on which we mostly rely come from the crimes that are reported to the police, and crime reporting rates are very uncertain. Many crimes are not reported and the police have all kinds of incentives to make crime statistics go up when they're looking for new appropriations and things. But, we do have crime statistics of one kind that are pretty good, and those are murder rates, and they definitely went up a lot in the last 1960s. So, most people, I think, believe that there was a substantial surge in crime in the last 1960s. 

I think most people think of the 1960s as an era when people felt freer to do what they wanted. And for people who were prone to violence, that can mean that they became more violent. And certainly there's a lot of evidence that there was an increase in violence in the last 1960s. And whether that was really related to the cultural shift in the 1960s is very hard to know. It's also true that we have a lot of evidence that, whenever there's a big war violence tends to increase, and there was a war going on in the late 1960s. Exactly how Vietnam would have fed into the murder rate is not clear, but there is this historical tendency of these to be correlated. Nobody knows quite why. 

QUESTION: You talked about the reliability of crime statistics. Do we perceive crime differently today than we did, say 80 years ago? 

CHRISTOPHER JENCKS: Well, we do have much better crime statistics since 1973 than we had before, because we now do surveys of people who might have been victims of crimes and we ask them the same questions year after year, and so we have a much better idea of how many people report having been robbed and having had their houses burgled, and things like that. So that's a check on the police statistics, and it's turned out to be a very useful check because in some periods when police statistics suggested that there was a big increase in crime, victims weren't reporting a big increase in crime. If you go back before that period, I think people's perceptions were mostly driven by what the police were reporting. If the police said there was a crime wave, people assumed there was a crime wave. Even now, that's probably the main factor. 

QUESTION: Is there any correlation between incarceration rates and crime rates? 

CHRISTOPHER JENCKS: There's definitely a correlation between crime rates and incarceration rates. I think the big question is what, why there would be a correlation - that is, if we incarcerate criminals and crime rates have gone up, you would expect incarceration rates to go up. If incarcerating people keeps them from committing new crimes, then incarcerating lots of people should make these things go down. Historically, the correlation is pretty weak. The thing you see over time is that incarceration has gone up a lot since the 1960s. It's gone up fairly steadily. Crime rates went up in the late '60s. There were comparatively flat until around 1980. They came down in the early '80s. They went back up again in the last '80s. They came down in the '90s. During all that period, up or down, incarceration was pretty much going up. So, at least for the last 25, probably 30 years, there hasn't been a strong relationship. We've been just filling up the prisons. 

QUESTION: Could you talk a little bit about the impact of James Q. Wilson on this study of crime? 

CHRISTOPHER JENCKS: I think James Q. Wilson's biggest impact on the study of crime was to make the argument that it was legitimate and appropriate to think about punishing criminals. Now, you might say, "Why was this news?" After all, most of the American public had thought it was completely reasonable to think about punishing criminals for time immemorial. But among academics, the emphasis had for a long, long time been very heavily on trying to either deter crime on the one hand and to rehabilitate criminals so that they wouldn't commit more crimes on the other hand. I mean, you could think of it as just, how do you make things better, as opposed to how do you punish people. He also made a large number of much more practical contributions as well. He helped to promote the idea that the disorder in local neighborhoods was a signal to people that they could do anything that they wanted to do, and that we ought to enforce small rules as well as big rules in neighborhoods, and that kind of thing. 

QUESTION: Talk specifically about the "broken windows theory." 

CHRISTOPHER JENCKS: James Q. Wilson [and a co-author] developed this argument called the "broken windows theory," which was that if you go into a neighborhood and you see a lot of broken windows, it tells you that nobody around here cares, that nobody's looking out for the neighborhood, that if you go break some more windows nobody's gonna doing anything about it. And in some broader sense, anything goes. So, their argument was that if you send the message that we care about this neighborhood and that people are watching, and that if something happens, someone will try to fix it, that also sends the message if something happens someone may catch you or notice, and that will change people's behavior, not just about whether they break windows, but whether they mug old ladies and whether or not they burgle houses and so forth. 

That theory led to the changes in policing practices in a number of cities, which at least the police departments in those cities believe has been a big factor in the reduction in crime in Boston, New York, and some other places during the 1990s. That's, of course, immensely controversial. Other people say it had nothing to do with the reduction in crime. But, there's no question that there were big changes in policing practices, and I think there's not much question that [this] argument played a role in that. 

QUESTION: What is the other side of the argument - what do other experts argue caused a reduction in crimes? 

CHRISTOPHER JENCKS: Most people who are skeptical about the "broken windows theory" argue is there were reductions in crime in many cities where these changes in police practices didn't occur. So, if crime came down in the cities where the police didn't pursue this theory, and in cities where they did pursue this theory, how can one argue that it was the change in police practice that made the difference? And then others say, well, it came down more in the cities that the police pursued these theories, and that's still a controversial area. It's certainly true that there were big reductions in crime in cities that did many different things during the 1990s. So, it's hard to argue that there's any particular one thing that was the single magic explanation for the reduction in crime. On the other hand, it does seem to me that there is some evidence that the reductions were bigger in the cities where these changes in police practice were most noticeable. 

[They also point to the fact] that the crack cocaine epidemic sort of ran its course. Partly it was that fewer people were using crack, and partly it seems to be that the distribution of crack got sort of into a settled pattern where there were a lot fewer people killing each other in turf wars in so forth. But whatever the explanation, that does seem like a plausible explanation for at least a part of the reduction, and it's very had to know how important that was. 

[Also] there have been demographic changes since the early 1990s, but they are quite small relative to the changes in crime rates, so it's very hard to argue that they are a major factor in the reduction. They probably are playing some role. There's also some reason to think that improvements in the employment opportunities play some role in this, although there have been plenty of periods when the labor market tightened and crime rates went up, as in the last 1960s, so that's a rather uncertain line of argument. 

QUESTION: How do crime rates in the last 20 years compare to the crime rates, let's say to the early part of the century? 

CHRISTOPHER JENCKS: Most people seem to think that crime rates today are higher than they were earlier in the twentieth century, but crime rates do fluctuate a lot over time. Crime rates went up in the 1920s. People mostly seem to think they were also quite high during parts of the nineteenth century. There's just immense controversy, both about the causes of this and about the actual character of fluctuations over time. But most people who study crime historically have a kind of fatalistic view, well, crime just goes up and then it comes down, and we don't really understand very well why. And some historians have, I think, quite interesting theories about why crime fell in particular periods of history and so forth, but their theories seldom apply to the next period of history. That's probably the right way to think about this, that each surge and each decline has a difference set of causes, and not that there's some sort of single variable century after century. 

QUESTION: For the final question, I want you to talk a little about your research that you're doing now on income inequality. Is there a greater income inequality? 

CHRISTOPHER JENCKS: There's been a big run-up in economic inequality since the late 1970s. Every measure of the distribution of income shows that the rich have gained a great deal more than the poor gained since the 1970s, 1960s. Many people somehow believe in their heart of hearts that if their neighbors are getting rich while they're standing still, they feel worse. And many egalitarians have argued that this is bad for the fabric of community, that it increase crime rates, that it increases disaffection, that it reduces people's inclination to participate in the body politics, that it might explain changes in voting behavior. My own sense is that there probably are these effects, but we're a very long way from being able to, to document most of them in a convincing way. 

QUESTION: What about the idea of mobility? Does this mitigate some of the income inequality that we see? 

CHRISTOPHER JENCKS: Well, there's lots of evidence that in America, as in every capitalist country, people who are poor one year often move up the next year. And people who were doing really well one year often move down the next year. So, upward and downward movement is a feature of modern competitive economies. The big question most people worry about is what happens to the next generation? If you're born into a poor family, what are the odds that you'll be poor? And, the answer to that kind of question is that it does seem quite clear that opportunity is not perfectly equal in the United States. If you're born into a poor family, your chances of being poor yourself are two or three times greater than if you're not born into a poor family. 

But, that said, the kind of big question is, well, is that changing? And that's still a quite a controversial area. I think that most of the evidence suggests that there actually has been some modest movement towards more equal opportunity, but others don't read the evidence that way, and I've been working on this myself recently and I could change my mind next year, so I wouldn't want to say that yes, this is something we know for sure. 

QUESTION: What could be done to mitigate some of this income inequality? 

CHRISTOPHER JENCKS: Well, there are two big factors that contribute to income inequality. The first big cause of income inequality is that wages are highly unequal, and you can influence the distribution of wages in a society in a multitude of different ways. The United States has a much more unequal distribution of wages than any other advanced capitalist country. Both Europe and Japan have more equal distributions of wages than we do. We think our system leads to more rapid economic growth, and more flexibility, and more incentives and so forth, but if you look back over the last half century, it's not obvious that that's true. Japan has grown faster than we have, and Europe has grown at least as fast as we have over this period of time. 

And if you want to compress the distribution of wages, there are a whole lot of things you can do. You can raise the minimum wage. You can change the law so it's a little easier to organize some labor unions. You can make different kinds of rule about the taxation of wage income. You can have a more centralized system for determining the distribution of wages, which many European countries do. 

The other big thing you can do, if you know how, is to ensure that there is at least one or preferably two reasonably productive wage earners in every household. If you have two people working in a household, the chances that that household will be poor are extremely low. On the other hand, nobody has figured out exactly how to ensure that that's the case. If you say why are household incomes more unequal than they used to be, one big factor is that wages grew more unequal, and the other big factor is that there are more households with no wage earners.


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