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The Homeless, by Christopher Jencks

- Abstract

An odd paradox marks America’s recent experience with homelessness during the 1980′s: even as the nation’s unemployment rate was cut in half, the number of homeless people on our streets continued to rise. The well-known sociologist Christopher Jencks takes this puzzle as his starting point in The Homeless, a meticulous piece of detective work framed by three fundamental questions: How much did homelessness rise during the 1980′s? Why did it increase? And what should we do about it?

The value of the answers in this slim yet dense volume does not lie in their novelty. Many readers will surely be unsurprised by the large role Jencks assigns to mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, and the decline of single-room-occupancy hotels. Nevertheless, the discomfiting tale bears retelling, particularly in light of the Clinton administration’s vow to reduce the number of homeless Americans by one-third before the end of the President’s first term. For anyone wondering whether the pledge might be ill-considered, Jencks serves as a reliable, hard-headed guide through a thicket of studies and competing theories, all the while expertly demonstrating what social science can do to give us insight into a social problem.

About the Author

Ben Wildavsky is a senior fellow in research and policy at the Kauffman Foundation and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.