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Reward and Punishment in American Social Policy

In the introduction to his latest book, Christopher Jencks recalls that when he arrived in Washington as a young editor of The New Republic in 1961, the term "social policy'' was not part of the political vocabulary. Having switched from journalism to sociology in the intervening years, Mr. Jencks has built a distinguished career analyzing the epochal changes that have transformed perceptions of that now-familiar term.

In Rethinking Social Policy, he dissects four major books of the preceding decade that have framed the ideologically charged debate over society's response to the disadvantaged. His perspective, he says, is one of a "cultural conservative'' who also believes in "economic egalitarianism.'' The excerpt below is from a chapter on Charles Murray's 1984 book, Losing Ground:


One chapter of Losing Ground is titled "The Destruction of Status Rewards''--not a euphonious phrase, but a useful one. The message is simple. If we want to promote virtue, we have to reward it. The social policies that prevailed from 1964 to 1980 often seemed to reward vice instead. They did not, of course, reward vice for its own sake. But if you set out to help people who are in trouble, you almost always find that most of them are to some extent responsible for their present troubles. Few victims are completely innocent. Helping those who are not doing their best to help themselves poses extraordinarily difficult moral and political problems. ...

The difficulty of helping the needy without rewarding indolence or folly recurs when we try to provide "second chances.'' America was a second chance for many of our ancestors, and it remains more committed to the idea that people can change their ways than any other society I know. But we cannot give too many second chances without undermining people's motivation to do well the first time around. In most countries, for example, students work hard in secondary school because they must do well on the exams given at the end of school in order to get a desirable job or go on to a university. In America, many colleges accept students who have learned nothing whatever in high school, including those who score near the bottom on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests. Is it any wonder that Americans learn less in high school than their counterparts in other industrial countries?

Analogous problems arise in our efforts to deal with criminals. We claim that crime will be punished, but this turns out to be mostly talk. Building prisons is too expensive, and putting people in prisons makes them more likely to commit crimes in the future. So we don't jail many criminals. Instead we tell ourselves that probation, suspended sentences, and the like are "really'' better. Needless to say, such a policy convinces both the prospective criminal and the public that punishment is a sham and that the criminal-justice system has no moral principles.

Still it is important not to overgeneralize this argument. Many people apply it to premarital sex, for example, arguing that fear of economic hardship is an important deterrent to illegitimacy and that offering unwed mothers an economic second chance makes unmarried women more casual about sex and contraception. In this case, however, the problem turns out to be illusory. Unmarried women do not seem to make much effort to avoid pregnancy even in states like Mississippi, where Aid to Families with Dependent Children pays a pittance. This means that liberal legislators can indulge their impulse to support illegitimate children in a modicum of decency without fearing that generosity will increase the number of children born into this unenviable situation.

The problem of second chances is intimately related to the larger problem of maintaining respect for the rules governing rewards and punishments in American society. As Charles Murray rightly emphasizes, no society can survive if it allows people to violate its rules with impunity on the grounds that "the system is at fault.'' Mr. Murray also argues that the liberal impulse to blame "the system'' for blacks' problems played an important part in the social, cultural, and moral deterioration of black urban communities after 1965. That such deterioration occurred in many cities is beyond doubt. Blacks were far more likely to murder, rape, and rob one another in 1980 than in 1965. Black males were also more likely to father children they did not intend to care for or support. Black teenagers were less likely to be working.

All this being conceded, the question remains: Were these ills attributable to people's willingness to blame the system, as Charles Murray claims? During the late 1960's crime, drug use, child abandonment, and academic lassitude were increasing in the prosperous white suburbs of New York and Los Angeles--and, indeed, in London, Prague, and Peking--as well as in Harlem and Watts. Mr. Murray is right to emphasize that the problem was worst in black American communities. But recall his explanation: "we--meaning the not-poor and the un-disadvantaged--had changed the rules of their world. Not our world, just theirs.'' If that is the explanation, why do we see the same trends among the rich?

Losing Ground does not answer such questions. Indeed, it does not ask them. But it does at least cast the debate over social policy in what I believe are the correct terms. First, it does not ask how much our social policies cost, or appear to cost, but whether they work. Second, it makes clear that a successful program must not only help those it seeks to help but must do so in such a way as not to reward folly or vice. Third, it reminds us that social policy is about punishment as well as rewards, and that a policy which is never willing to countenance suffering, however deserved, will not long endure.

The liberal coalition that dominated Washington from 1964 to 1980 did quite well by the first of these criteria: Its major programs, contrary to Mr. Murray's argument, did help the poor. But it did not do as well by the other two criteria: It often rewarded folly and vice, and it never had enough confidence in its own norms of behavior to assert that those who violated these norms deserved whatever sorrows followed.

Rethinking Social Policy: Race, Poverty, and the Underclass, by Christopher Jencks. Copyright 1992 by Christopher Jencks. Reprinted by permission of Harvard University Press, 79 Garden Street, Cambridge, Mass. 02138.

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