Book Review: Off the dole
January 1, 2005
by Kay S. Hymowitz
American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare by Jason DeParle Viking. 422pp. $ 25.95
EIGHT YEARS ago Americans ended welfare as they knew it. To judge from their silence on the subject during the 2004 election, they have never looked back. Perhaps that is not surprising. The public always hated welfare, largely because it undercut so many bedrock American values--self-government, personal responsibility, up-from-the-boot-straps hard work. As the debate over welfare reform heated up in the mid 1990's, "it seemed the very idea of America was on trial."
So writes Jason DeParle in his new book. As a reporter covering urban poverty for the New Fork Times, DeParle epitomized liberal skepticism about welfare reform; indeed, he played a not inconsiderable role in setting out the case against it. Yet in American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare, he has managed to transcend partisanship to produce an important and illuminating work, one that will confound liberal readers of the Times and hard-line critics of welfare alike.
American Dream is a tale of two cities--Milwaukee and Washington, D.C.--and of two alien, though interdependent, cultures: the inner-city ghetto and the public-policy labyrinth dedicated to addressing its problems.
As the book begins in 1991, Angela Jobe, a single mother of three young children, arrives in Milwaukee from Chicago to take advantage of the city's generous welfare payments and modest rents. She is joined by Jewell Reed, the sister of Angela's imprisoned boyfriend, who is pregnant and also a single mother, and later by her cousin Opal Caples, who has three daughters and a tragic weakness for cocaine. The three women go through a mind-numbing assortment of alcoholic, deadbeat, and violent men. Struggling to keep the lights on and the refrigerator stocked, they take a series of dead-end jobs and cash in on payments from Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), a federal program set up in 1935 to help widows but by the 1990's part of a support system for never-married inner-city mothers.
American Dream is not, however, just another volume in the library of underclass dysfunction. DeParle also explores the ambiguous interplay between life on the street and public policy. This part of the narrative also begins in 1991, as a then-obscure governor of Arkansas starts to refine the messages of his nascent presidential campaign. As much as any politician, Bill Clinton understood that everyone--from white Yankee farmers to black North Carolina factory workers--hated welfare. He also suspected that the poor were more resilient than most liberals thought. He wanted to reform welfare in order, as he once told DeParle, to give the poor "the same piss and vinegar" that immigrants possessed. He also believed that welfare fed racist stereotypes, and thereby impeded his hoped-for revival of a truly progressive Democratic party.
Yet, for reasons that remain unclear, once in the presidency Clinton fumbled the issue. Under the leadership of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the combative Republicans who swept into Congress in 1994 made welfare reform their own cause. Though Gingrich overplayed his hand at times, Clinton was faced in the end with a largely Republican-de-signed bill that went far beyond anything he had imagined when he first took up the subject: block grants that ended federal entitlements and gave states control over most policy details; five-year time limits; and (in a reversal of standing policy) a requirement of work before recipients received training and education. Though he was opposed by most of his cabinet and ended up alienating some of his closest friends, Clinton signed Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) into law in August 1996. AFDC was no more.
THE RESULTS stunned just about everyone, including proponents of the bill. To put it simply, the welfare rolls collapsed. Within five years, more than 9 million people--3 million families--had left welfare, adding up to a decline of 63 percent. No region of the country was untouched.
DeParle describes in great detail how Angela's new hometown of Milwaukee, which by the early 90's had become the nation's fastest growing ghetto, turned into the most impressive success. Years before TANF was law, Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson had seized the initiative on the issue by hiring a devoted reformer named Jason Turner, who made jobs his central concern. Turner established a strict requirement that those welfare recipients who could not find work in the private sector had to take community-service jobs. For the first time, recipients who failed to keep up their end of the bargain got smaller checks, just as they would at Denny's or Sears.
The speed of the decline in welfare rolls was also surprising. Experts had assumed that the five-year time limit would be the do-or-die moment. Instead, welfare recipients quickly grew impatient with the hassles of the new, stricter bureaucracy What observers had failed to grasp was that most recipients had never relied solely or even primarily on welfare payments; more than half of them worked during the course of a year. The three women profiled by DeParle get money from boyfriends, from sporadic stints in fast-food joints, from female cousins who camp out in their apartments, or from their boyfriends. When welfare disappears, they simply fall back on these other sources of income.
Angela Jobe is a perfect example. With an erratic but long work history unknown to the welfare system--a history that includes jobs at Popeye's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and even the post office--she matter-of-factly cashes her last welfare check and takes a position as an aide in a nursing home. Her response to the revolution that had kept policy mavens tossing at night? "I always work anyway."
In fact, through DeParle makes the case that welfare reform was the most successful anti-poverty policy of our time--black and Hispanic poverty rates had sunk to all-time lows by 2001--he also shows that its effects loomed far larger in government offices and the media than they did on the streets. On paper, the fortunes of many recipients certainly improved. Angela is able to purchase a car and, working double shifts, sometimes earns at a rate of $ 20,000 a year; at one point she is even able to take her children on a summer vacation. Bowing to necessity, Jewell eventually ends up working steadily in the shipping line at a tool-making plant. Yet both women struggle.
Several years after leaving welfare, Angela is still relying for as much as half of her income on food stamps, housing aid, and the Earned income Tax Credit. Even so, she sometimes cannot afford to have her car repaired, pay her electricity, bill, or keep food in the house. When DeParle prods her to give an opinion of welfare reform, she snaps in exasperation, "I don't pay no attention to that crap! I ain't thinking 'bout welfare." Even during her nearly eight years on welfare, Angela viewed herself as "strong, self-reliant ... a survivor." When welfare dries up, she just finds other ways to keep afloat.
Not all recipients fare even that well. DeParle gives examples of some who drop off the rolls into complete ruin because they are too depressed or mentally unstable to maneuver through an increasingly demanding system. In other cases, incompetent agencies exacerbate their problems. As Opal sinks deeper into cocaine addiction, a case-worker at a state-funded for-profit agency, called Maximus simply gives her a check--with predictable consequences. The caseworker, who is eventually arrested for a minor crime and becomes jobless herself, is just one of a rogue's gallery of Maximus employees, including profligate managers who spend $ 100,000 in public funds on promotional mugs and backpacks. Lost in "a bureaucratic black hole," Opal sells all her furniture, loses custody of her children, and finally disappears into the shadows of Milwaukee.
JASON DEPARLE has produced a superb book--honest, richly observed, and artfully written. Rare for a policy book, it manages to make subjects like Jason Turner, the eccentric wonk-architect of the Wisconsin reform, live and breathe; even Newt Gingrich comes across as a complex brew of revolutionary big thinker and fierce partisan. DeParle shows how Angela Jobe's experience represents the sort of transformation that struck early skeptics like himself as little more than a fantasy. Although her job at the nursing home is wearying and backbreaking, DeParle is struck by how it helps her to transcend her isolation and "tap ... a vein of energy and imagination dormant in other parts of her life."
That said, American Dream is no unambiguous trophy for reform enthusiasts. The experiences of Angela, Jewell, and Opal belie many of the standard conservative answers to the problems of the ghetto. Though educated in a parochial school and raised by a God-fearing mother, Angela still becomes a high-school dropout and single mother. After welfare reform, she acquires extraordinary work habits, traveling in the predawn dark to suburban nursing homes and taking on double shifts. But her self-discipline does not rub off on her children--one becomes pregnant, another drops out of school.
As for Opal, she was married and working before she had her first child, yet by the end of the book, she is the one giving birth to a crack-addicted baby. In a chapter that describes the impoverished childhood of Jewell's mother in the Mississippi Delta, DeParle makes a compelling case that illegitimacy, fatherlessness, sexual abuse, and family breakdown all predated the welfare-supported ghetto--and are likely to survive it.
So where does policy go from here? Most reviewers of American Dream have agreed with DeParle's two major lines of recommendation. First, that the working poor should receive more support in the form of childcare, transportation aid, and training. Something is amiss, after all, when a welfare-supported drug addict like Opal receives free health-care while the conscientious Jewell cannot afford to get help for her bleeding ulcers. Second, that the next frontier of anti-poverty efforts is dealing with the absence in these communities of husbands and fathers. It is a measure of how far welfare reform has moved the debate that DeParle and others like him now support marriage initiatives they once would have scorned.
Anti-poverty advocates often point to drug abuse and depression as the prime "barriers to work" for poor women, but as DeParle observes, they neglect to mention the one he found the most destructive: what Angela calls the "too-cool, too-slick motherfucker men." From the segregation-era South to the post-welfare-reform Midwest, the husbands available to poor black women have often been unfaithful, drunken, abusive, pimping--or all of the above. Father-hunger is epidemic throughout American Dream, and the sobs that fill the car as DeParle drives Angela and her children home from visiting their father in jail echo hauntingly in the mind of the reader.
Though "healthy" marriages are surely an essential next step in attacking the ills of the inner city, American Dream offers a subtle caution on this score that DeParle himself misses. Angela's story suggests that being middle-class is as much a state of mind as it is a regular paycheck and a wedding ring. She demonstrates the "piss and vinegar" that reformers hoped to instill in ex-recipients, but few of the other bourgeois virtues that have long allowed immigrants to leave the slums of the Lower East Side or Chinatown.
Instead of using a tax windfall to buy the car she desperately needs to take her to a better-paying job, Angela spends it on Nintendo video games and bedroom furniture for her sons. Beyond keeping her children out of jail, she has few ambitions for them. She lets her crack-addicted cousin and alcoholic boyfriend move in with her and says nothing when her daughter befriends a prostitute. When DeParle asks her why she does not intervene, she answers huffily, "I'm not supposed to let my kids visit her 'cause that's her chosen profession? ... You don't judge people about stuff like that!" Married parents or no, it is a good bet that a child hanging out with cocaine addicts and prostitutes is not going to move up and out.
Thanks to welfare reform, the work ethic may be on the rise in the inner city, but the same cannot be said of middle-class ideals of child-centeredness, probity, and cultural self-improvement. Many believed that these values were sapped by welfare. The hard lesson of American Dream is that work by itself will not bring them back.
KAY S. HYMOWITZ is a contributing editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.
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