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. And many low-wage workers earned considerably less than $17,000 because they were unemployed for part of the year, worked less than 40 hours a week or earned less than $8 an hour. Some of those low-wage workers were teenagers...

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. Now the Bush administration wants even tougher work requirements. Once again, most liberal Democrats think it is a mistake to worry about making every last single mother work when we have not yet ensured that those who already work can provide for their children. Once again, I agree: The administration's proposals are dreadful. But the people who claimed that PRWORA would cause a lot of suffering no longer have much credibility with middle-of-the-road legislators, who see welfare reform as an extraordinary success. If we want to regain credibility...

Can We Put a Time Limit on Welfare?

Clinton’s proposal for a two-year limit on AFDC payments would be the most far-reaching welfare reform since 1935. But if the goal is to make welfare mothers self-sufficient, it won’t be cheap.

T he first results are just beginning to trickle in from Washington's last venture in welfare reform, the Family Support Act 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 modest 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. Nonetheless, grass-roots hostility to the system has been driving both state legislators and presidential candidates to propose more drastic changes. Many states have trimmed benefits for parents receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) for childless adults receiving General Assistance (GA), or both. Michigan has abolished GA altogether. New...

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?

A ffluent 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. But even if everyone pursued these goals single-mindedly, a significant minority of the population still could not afford children without some kind of government help. When the Clinton administration unveiled its proposals for revamping Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), it said the plan "signals that people should not have children until they are ready to support them." Yet for many poor women, that time will never come. Sad to say, there are neither enough good jobs nor enough good husbands to provide every American woman...

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.

W hen 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. To solve these problems, Clinton made three proposals. First, he pushed through a big increase in the earned income tax credit (EITC). If a single mother with two children earns $5 an hour and works 35 hours a week throughout the year, she now gets a refundable tax credit of $3,556—an extra $1.95 for every hour she has worked. Next, Clinton asked Congress to make all...