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Colección: La Educación
Número: (115) II
Año: 1993

11. Christopher JENCKS, Rethinking Social Policy: Race, Poverty, and the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harper Collins/Harvard University Press, 1993, vi, 280 p., figures, tables, bibliography, index. Paper: $12.00.

In this book, sociologist Christopher Jencks, of the Northwestern University, brings together five essays—three of which previously published in the New York Review of Books—in which he analyzes with great perspicacy some untractable social problems of the contemporary United States, and discusses some of the most relevant treatments of those problems in the contemporary social science literature. The essays deal with the affirmative action, safety net and welfare policies, examine the problem of crime, and enter the debate on the concept of underclass. Before looking into a couple of examples of the author’s substantive contribution to policy analysis, it is worth examining a point of theoretical import to which his book constitutes a significant contribution, as a judgement on the role of the social sciences in the conception and evaluation of public policies.

A good part of the motivation for the study of the social sciences and for the funding of social science research, certainly stems from the desire to master the instruments of change and betterment of society. In the neopositivist camp, there has been a great development over the last 30 years of the so-called policy sciences. The field of policy analysis has grown. It is a field in which the approaches of several different disciplines (such as sociology, political science, and economics) are mustered, and the empirical and the normative approaches are combined to make diagnoses of, and to put forward projects of, intervention in social reality.

Nonetheless, we are still far from a situation in which social policy can be guided predominantly by the type of scientific knowledge to which the neopositivists aspire. The values, prejudices, and ideologies of decisionmakers are at least as important in shaping public policy as the hypotheses and empirical data of the social sciences. Moreover, the social science production aimed at providing guidance to the governmental policy is itself a mix of factual and value judgements.

The situation depicted above should come as no surprise. To refer to social problems is to speak of poverty, criminality, forms of discrimination or inequality, and of the role of government in coping with those phenomena. All human beings will proffer judgements on the above-mentioned matters which are based on their religious, moral, or ideological preferences. True, the practitioners of the social sciences will attempt to devise operational hypotheses, to collect empirical evidence to support or falsify them, and to frame conclusions in terms of factual judgments. However, ultimately they can neither neutralize totally the influence of their interests, ideologies, and prejudices on the choice of evidence, analyses and conclusions, nor dispense altogether with values and norms in the proposals for action.

Jencks is fully aware of these constraints on the role of the social sciences as a foundation for social policies. In this book, he discusses some relevant instances of social policies, such as, for example, the program of “affirmative action.” He appraises both the arguments which support that program, and those which attack it, and attempts to strike a middle course between the liberal and the conservative encampments. For Jencks, affirmative action ought to be upheld, because in its absence, with market incentives being as they are, firms stand to gain from discrimination in hiring practices. This fact justifies, in Jencks’s eyes, the role of the government in discouraging present hiring practices. Nonetheless, he advocates changes in the criteria for identifying discrimination. In his own words, “we need numerical goals, but they must be based on realistic assessments of how many blacks a firm can recruit without establishing a double standard. We must, in other words, keep affirmative action, but we must also give it a new meaning that is consistent with color-blind performance standards” (69).

One other controversial program Jencks considers is the transfers to the poor. Transfer programs, according to some evaluations, such as Charles Murray’s, have impoverished the poor rather than enrich them. Jencks takes issue with that opinion, showing that it does not square with the available data, which show, on the contrary, that net poverty has declined between 1965 and 1980, and that that decline occurred despite unfavorable economic conditions, and depended to a great extent on government efforts to help the poor. Moreover, he contends that the groups that benefited from the transfer programs were precisely the groups that legislators hoped would benefit, notably the aged and the disabled. The groups that did not benefit were the ones that legislators did not especially want to help. Of course, a social program which passes those strict tests deserves praise.

However, the transfer programs not only have a material impact, but also a social, cultural, and moral impact. Here, Jencks concurs with Murray that the picture is far less encouraging. The specific program under scrutiny is Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). According to Murray and other conservatives, that program contributes to undermine the traditional norms about work and marriage in American society. This is a very serious criticism since, as Jencks observes, there are currently no politically viable alternatives for those norms. Therefore he concludes that until the liberals transform AFDC, so it reinforces rather than subverts American ideals about work and marriage, “our efforts to build a humane welfare state will never succeed” (13).

To Jencks, both the conservative and the liberal perspectives adopted by some of the most influential social scientists in the United States have led to bad social policy. He is well aware that his own conclusions tie together factual and moral assumptions, and rather than making attempts to cover this fact, he makes his assumptions explicit and more tentative, “looking for evidence that they are wrong as well as evidence that they are right.” While declaring himself culturally conservative, economically egalitarian, and incrementalist with regard to reform, he presents the empirical arguments to justify his taking those positions, rather than their opposites.

To assuage our concerns over the degree to which the social science bases upon which many policies rest are the unavoidable reflex of the ideological stands and the prejudices of their proponents, Jencks subscribes to a healthy methodological principle. For him, we should pay less attention to generalities and more to examples. As he states, “Instead of arguing about affirmative action ... 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. Instead of debating nature versus nurture, we should try to understand how a particular gene or set of genes influences some specific form of behavior. Instead of asking whether the underclass has grown, we should ask whether specific social problems have become more common among particular groups and, if so, when and why the change ocurred. Instead of agonizing about welfare dependency, we should ask where welfare recipients really get their money” (23). This methodological guidance should inspire whoever is looking for proposals of intervention in social reality that are more realistic and evince a greater capacity of evoking political support.

This is an intelligent and stimulating book, the reading of which is not encumbered by the jargon of social science. It is highly recommended to all those concerned with the role of the social sciences in the amelioration of public policy as well as to those substantively interested in social policies.

Antonio O. Cintra