All Fraternity Has Fled

RETHINKING SOCIAL POLICY: Race, Poverty, and the Underclass by Christopher Jencks. Harvard University Press, $27.95.

THE TOUGHEST, and in many respects the most unfair, question facing liberalism and the Democratic Party is, Why did the symptoms of social decay and dysfunction abruptly escalate when the revolution in individual and group rights reached its height, in the mid-1960s and early 1970s? The question is unfair in that the crown jewel of the rights revolution—the elimination of legally sanctioned segregation and discrimination—has been extraordinarily successful in raising the level of racial fairness in every region of the country.
The tough part of the question involves the parallel deterioration of parts of American society. The revolution in welfare rights coincided with an explosion of welfare dependency. Crime and illegitimacy shot up after 1960. The granting of special group rights to make up for past discrimination, including protected employment status and affirmative-action programs, has opened some doors for blacks. But simultaneously, the ratio of the percentage of blacks to the percentage of whites working in an average week declined steadily through the mid-1980s, and the percentage of men performing no paid work for entire calendar years has risen much faster among blacks than among whites.
In Rethinking Social Policy: Race, Poverty, and the Underclass, Christopher Jencks takes on some of the most difficult issues facing contemporary liberalism: affirmative action, the underclass, the heritability of intelligence and criminal inclination, and the necessity for lying by welfare recipients whose payments are inadequate for survival. Jencks is an intellectually courageous person, determined to confront and deal with the forces that have undermined his deeply felt commitment to egalitarianism.
Jencks’s analyses and conclusions are both reasoned and reasonable, but it is just that reasonableness that limits his vision. Jencks is not prepared to recognize the pervasive sense of disorder, lawlessness, and valuelessness that voters now perceive both in government and in society at large. Although the book documents much disorder, Jencks does not recognize the broader political linkages that voters are now making— linkages such that his pragmatic proposals for programmatic reform are both inadequate to the tasks facing liberalism and impossible to achieve without a restoration of broader philosophic coherence on the left.
Jencks focuses on the contradictions and disorder that are now inherent in domestic social policy designed to help the poor and also in communities with high concentrations of the poor. He explores material that unsophisticated voters understand and recognize. But voters place this material in a far more generalized context: the electorate now sees an interlocking logic in such disparate phenomena as a welfare system that finances illegitimacy and joblessness, a Capitol Hill where members of Congress are permitted to bounce checks, a corporate structure in which executives losing the global competition were at the start of the 1990s paid 120 times the amount going to the average manufacturing worker (as compared with thirty-five times in 1974). The electorate, I would argue, has taken an intellectual leap that intellectuals, and politicians, have been fearful of making.
Despite this shortcoming, Rethinking Social Policy is an extraordinary achievement. Jencks, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University, not only takes on issues that are explosively dangerous for a liberal academic but, in the main, does so without ideological bias, and with consistent intellectual clarity.
Jencks’s examination, for example, of affirmative action and corporate hiring practices leads him down paths that liberals in academia and politics have feared to tread since the late 1960s. There are, Jencks points out, some very real forces operating to prevent racial equality from resulting in statistical parity in the national workplace. He writes,
When black and white students take tests that measure vocabulary, reading comprehension, mathematical skill, or scientific information, for example, blacks do much worse than whites. If employers valued educated workers mainly for their skills in these areas, whites would almost inevitably earn more than blacks with the same amount of schooling.
Jencks shows that these differences in test scores are not significant enough to justify the 25 to 30 percent disparity in black and white incomes, but then he points out numerous other factors working to the disadvantage of blacks in the workplace.
Worker dissatisfaction, which according to some organizational theorists correlates negatively with job performance, is higher among blacks than among whites making the same amount of money, even when
one holds constant differences in occupational status, fringe benefits, job security, hours, unionization, and the like. . . . The fact that blacks are less satisfied could mean that they perform worse than whites with similar skills. Were that the case, even unprejudiced employers would end up paying blacks less than whites with similar credentials.
At the same time, “black men commit far more violent crimes than white men [and] many employers are reluctant to hire men with criminal records.” Furthermore,
young black men are also more likely than white men with the same amount of schooling to father children whom they do not live with or support. This situation is not a matter of direct concern to employers. But if young black men were to approach their work in the same way that they approach contraception and parenthood, employers would have good reason to avoid hiring them for responsible jobs.
Jencks does not attempt to quantify the economic consequences of these factors. Instead, he presents equivocal data leaving unresolved the fundamental question raised by his commentary: In contemporary American society, how much of the continuing statistical disparity between blacks and whites can be explained by present-day discrimination, how much by the lasting consequences of past discrimination, and how much by such considerations as test scores, workers’ attitudes, criminal records, and so on? This unanswered question goes to the heart of the predicament of liberals struggling to balance the political costs of racially preferential policies against their belief that aggressive government action is necessary to compensate for past discrimination.
Jencks does explore the economic costs to blacks of tough affirmativeaction policies. The evidence he has gathered suggests that well before Ronald Reagan won the presidency and began paring down civil-rights enforcement, black employment levels had declined in comparison with white employment levels, in apparent defiance of the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s goal of increased employment opportunity.
Among college graduates, the ratio of black to white employment declined fairly steadily from 1965 to 1981. These dates coincide almost exactly with the period when employers worried most about meeting federal affirmative-action requirements.
One key factor is that each firm learned that it
may well be sued if it hires colorblind and then fires more blacks than whites. It is unlikely to be sued if it hires relatively few blacks and never fires anyone. . . . [Civil-rights laws] made firms more cautious about hiring blacks, because they knew black workers had more rights than their white counterparts, and firms prefer workers with as few rights as possible.
The net result, Jencks concludes, is that
black men who found steady jobs were better off than ever before, because their wages rose relative to white norms. But a growing minority of black men could not find steady jobs. They were worse off than before.
In addition to these economic costs, racially preferential policies have painful social and political costs that Jencks ultimately finds unacceptable. College admissions policies favoring marginally qualified blacks effectively ensure that “blacks earn lower grades than their white classmates . . . [and] relatively few blacks choose hard majors. . . . These experiences inevitably reenforce traditional prejudices about blacks’ academic abilities.” In addition, the acceptance of marginally qualified students encourages the viewpoint among those struggling to graduate that
if we stay in school, we usually do as little work as possible, because we find it easier to maintain our self-respect if we get a Cafter doing very little work than if we get a C+ after weeks of hard work. Colleges that admit large numbers of academically marginal black students should not, therefore, be surprised when these students create a subculture in which working hard is devalued.
Rethinking Social Policy is overflowing with data and analysis disturbing to proponents of the liberal rights revolution. From 1964 to 1976, the height of the welfare-rights revolution, when the inflation-adjusted value of the average monthly welfare payment rose from $554 (in 1988 dollars) to $782, the percentage of female-headed households with children getting AFDC payments shot up from 29 to 61. The years following the end of de jure segregation and discrimination saw the percentage of black children growing up in fatherless homes rise from 20 in 1960 to 51 in 1985. In his chapter on crime Jencks voices the crisis of liberalism with eloquence.
Liberals have traditionally hoped that more freedom would lead to more of almost everything else they valued. Many Americans viewed the 1960s and early 1970s as a test of this hypothesis. Restrictions on personal behavior diminished dramatically during this period, altering everything from sexual habits and hair styles to relations with the police and employers. Deference to authority in all its guises also declined, making people feel they had more choices. . . . In the early 1960s most liberals had hoped that this kind of liberalization would make us all feel a stronger sense of solidarity (or “fraternity”) with one another. Once our own rights were more fully recognized, we were supposed to become more attentive to the rights of others. . . . The liberal innovations of the 1960s and early 1970s were therefore supposed to reduce the frequency of murder, rape, assault, robbery, and burglary. Instead, all these crimes became far more common. Rightly or wrongly, many Americans concluded that increased liberty, especially for the poor, had actually caused the decline in “fraternity.”
AFTER POSING this and a host of other critical issues for liberalism, Jencks, who describes himself as a cultural conservative and a liberal egalitarian, proposes that for the left the best avenue out of its many predicaments is a return to pragmatism at the most basic level.
This is not a book about political principles or prejudices. Quite the contrary. These six essays all try to show that, if we want to make better social policies in the United States, we should pay less attention to generalities and more to examples. Instead of arguing about affirmative action, for instance, we should think about how a firm fills a particular job. Instead of trying to generalize about the overall effect of the welfare state, we should look at the diverse effects of particular social programs. ... If this book encourages readers to think about social policy more concretely, it will have served its primary purpose.
At this level Jencks achieves his goal. His detailed examination of policies and social trends provides insight into some of the most severe domestic problems facing the nation. Jencks’s major contribution in Rethinking Social Policy is repeatedly to force the replacement of myths, liberal and conservative, with an often painful reality.
But Jencks’s contention that the most effective strategy for rectifying the crises of liberal domestic policy is through close examination and reform of each program is dead wrong. The central failing of liberalism is that it lacks a set of overarching political principles endorsed by a majority of the electorate.
The electorate is not going to restore power to a liberalism that has not resolved such “generalities” as the degree of legitimacy to grant to the work ethic, to personal and parental responsibility, and to neighborhood security. Liberalism now is like a boat without a keel, pushed from side to side by the winds of the moment, lacking direction in the storm of the rights revolution, international economic competition, intensified class divisions, and a threatening level of social dysfunction in the urban core of the nation. There is no question that the programs and policies that have evolved since the 1930s need the kind of rigorous evaluation based on concrete information which Jencks calls for. But the voters, with absolute legitimacy, will not grant politicians this authority until there has been a substantial restoration of guiding principles on which the public can rely as elected officials work through the process of reform. □