Three Women, Ten Kids,
and a Nation's Drive
to End Welfare
By Jason DeParle
Viking -- 422pp -- $25.95
Delegates at the Republican National Convention this summer cheered President George W. Bush's acceptance speech with a zeal ordinarily reserved for Super Bowl matches. But there was only a smattering of applause for one line: a call for welfare recipients to work longer hours. The lackluster response showed how an issue that rightists once found rousing has dropped off the radar. It has been eight years since Bill Clinton signed welfare reform into law. Now, to the extent that most voters think about the revamped system at all, they regard it as an unmitigated success story, not a rallying point.
The narrative goes something like this: Time limits on benefits and tougher work requirements prodded welfare mothers to land jobs for the first time. As a result, not only are families benefiting economically but they also are gaining a new sense of purpose. Inspired by their mothers' example, children will feel inspired to establish their own place in the middle class as adults.
The legacy of welfare reform is much more ambiguous, as Jason DeParle, a senior writer at The New York Times, makes clear in American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare. This superb and affecting book employs a two-track narrative. Tapping his experience as the Times's point man on welfare reform, DeParle provides a thorough description of the evolution of poverty policy. Interspersed are rubber-meets-the-road accounts of the consequences, good and bad, of those Washington debates on three Milwaukee women, who DeParle followed over a seven-year period.
Critics might allege that DeParle's sample is too small and therefore not as persuasive as a larger study might have been. Still, the author's nuanced portrayal of the women's experience is eye-opening and sobering. Two get low-income jobs, which they must juggle along with single parenthood. They move up the social ladder just a bit: Under welfare, Angela Jobe, DeParle's main character, has a total income of around $21,500. Later, after taking on double shifts as an aide to the elderly, Jobe earns just under $25,000. But DeParle's third character, Opal Caples, succumbs to crack addiction and loses custody of her children. The welfare bureaucracy does little to break her fall, nor does it provide much help to the two working women, who would have benefitted from quality after-school programs, for example. Still, welfare reform was accompanied by an expansion of the earned-income tax credit, providing annual checks that have proved crucial to the women. And many states, including Wisconsin, offered new services, such as transportation subsidies and child care.
Jobe's children don't seem to have benefited from her new life. Once she started working around the clock, they attended school even less often than before. Unsupervised for hours at a time and living in a dangerous neighborhood, they began experimenting with drugs and sex. At the end of DeParle's narrative, Jobe's 17-year-old daughter is pregnant. She breaks the news to the father at his eighth-grade graduation.
DeParle debunks many myths surrounding the old system. For example, conservatives once argued that welfare benefits rewarded and therefore encouraged out-of-wedlock births in the African American community. DeParle shows the cause-and-effect link to be less clear, citing studies that demonstrate the existence of a fluid family structure dating back decades to rural life in the South.
DeParle also punctures the notion that welfare recipients didn't work before the change in the law. Most did, at least sporadically -- they just didn't report the jobs to the government. One reason the welfare rolls dropped by more than half after the 1996 law is that recipients who were already working off the books weren't willing to shoulder the additional burden of new workfare requirements, such as having to clean public buildings or sort mail.
Finally, the author considers Wisconsin's welfare-to-work program, once held to be a model of achievement. That reputation doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Corruption and inefficiency dogged the private companies contracted to provide caseworkers -- those charged with shepherding former welfare recipients to self-sufficiency. Caseworkers often did nothing, and in some cases were predatory -- even pressuring clients for sex and a cut of welfare checks.
That isn't the book's only disturbing story. In one scene, Jobe's youngest son throws himself to the floor crying because he is hungry. In another a 50-year-old woman loses her kids and is expelled from a homeless shelter after a drug binge. Still, DeParle ends on a hopeful note. He points out that welfare reform's elimination of no-strings cash handouts cleared the path for a new debate over ways to help the poor. Health insurance, quality after-school care, and efforts to reach out to urban black men can make a huge difference. And yet, given the political climate, a drive to ease the burdens of the working underclass is likely not in the offing, no matter how great the need.
By Alexandra Starr