Social scientist Christopher Sandy Jencks gave a lecture titled “The War On Poverty: Did We Give Up Too Soon?” on Monday afternoon. In the lecture, Jencks provided students with a history of America’s relationship with its impoverished citizens.
Jencks has written a number of books on the topic of poverty in America, including The Academic Revolution (1968), The Urban Underclass (1991), and The Black-White Test Score Gap (1998). He currently serves as the Malcolm Wiener professor of social policy in the Harvard Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
“In 1962, poverty was hardly on the agenda of the United States,” Jencks said. “And two things happened: the first one was that Michael Harrington published a book called The Other America, which, at the time, wasn’t a huge success.”
Harrington’s book described the living conditions of the poor at the time.
Further, Jencks said that Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency had a significant impact on the living conditions of the poor in the United States.
“He wasn’t thinking about closing the gap between the poor and everyone else, he was thinking about how to bring up the poor’s standard of living,” Jencks said.
He compared Johnson’s plan to the Marshall Plan and said that Johnson wanted his administration to be remembered as the one that started down the road to ending pain and poverty.
Jencks commented on the fact that people considered Johnson’s platform of focusing on the poor in America to be a repackaging of President John F. Kennedy’s administrative goals. Jencks, however, thinks that Johnson’s platform was more focused on making Americans care about poverty. He wanted them to think of the national issue as an “unnecessary tragedy” versus an inevitable part of society.
Johnson’s successors, Jencks said, were Republicans, but the Democrats held a majority in Congress. The Republican presidents continued Johnson’s work in aiding the poor, however, because they did not want to be on the wrong side of history.
Jencks spoke further on the Vietnam War and how it severely reduced the rate of poverty in the United States.
“If you look at the rates, it didn’t really go back up too much after that,” he said. “We had the Great Recession, which increased poverty a bit, but we have come down since then.”
Jencks then moved on to discuss the poverty line, which was created by Mollie Orshansky in the early 1960s to determine what level of income a household had to be under to be considered poor. Jencks, however, does not think that the poverty line is an accurate representation of the poor’s living conditions in the U.S.
“I would like to say it’s just a line,” Jencks said. “But it’s not just a line.”
He spoke more on the “touch-ups” economists have made on the concept of the poverty line to better gauge how many Americans are in fact impoverished. But it is still up for debate how we can accurately measure poverty.
When asked about education in the U.S., Jencks said that schooling is only effective if the students are able to take the skills they learned in school and apply them to the workplace. If the recent rise in college graduates does not improve the odds of post-graduates receiving jobs, he said, then the rise in college graduates is not much of an accomplishment.
Jencks noted the progress that the U.S. has made when it comes to reducing poverty, but he still believes that there is a significant amount of work to be done.
“It is still quite impressive how far we have come,” Jencks said.
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