Book Review -The Boston Globe

By Joanne Skerrett, Globe Staff

October 13, 2004

Jason DeParle, a reporter for The New York Times, describes the 1990s changes
in welfare policy as what happens when a party controlled by Southern white men
gains power over a program disproportionately used by black and Hispanic women.
His book, "American Dream," is a panoramic view of welfare reform, from its
inception during President Clinton's first campaign, to the consequent battle to
implement it, and the policy's effects on three women whom DeParle tracked for a
decade. His book is a starkly honest and earnest account that adds a much-needed
human element to a controversial issue.

DeParle, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, offers up in "American
Dream" a humorous, emotional story that is exhaustive in detail and scope and
that promises to be a force in the debate over the welfare overhaul begun in the
1990s. He skillfully zeroes in on every angle of the discussion, from policy
makers to case worker to recipient. DeParle also deftly explores Clinton's
struggle to find the right way to frame his policy.

The political wrangling comes second to the human side of "American Dream,
" which reveals some surprising truths. DeParle tracks a black family from its
past on a Mississippi plantation to present-day Milwaukee, tracing the
trajectory that has kept it dependent on welfare for generations. While this
phenomenon is what angers many of welfare's opponents, DeParle finds that for
some of these families the description "dependent" is not always accurate. Of
the three women DeParle follows - Angie, Opal, and Jewell - all of them, and
their mothers, worked while receiving welfare; they just never reported the
income. Those monthly checks were a supplement and a backup plan. Hence, they
were not too dismayed by Clinton's vow to "end welfare as we know it."

DeParle portrays welfare as a system rife with contradictions and
humiliations for recipients, and prone to manipulation by corporations and
government officials. Tommy Thompson, former governor of Wisconsin and now head
of Health and Human Services, is credited with much of the success of welfare
reform in Wisconsin despite his many failings. DeParle writes that historically,
nationwide welfare rolls had never fallen more than 8 percent in a year, but by
the time they had leveled off in 2001 they had fallen for seven straight years
by a total of 63 percent nationwide; outside Milwaukee, the Wisconsin rolls
dropped by 98 percent.

But the numbers don't tell the whole story. Angie's anger and humiliation at
dealing with the welfare bureaucracy were almost palpable, and her feelings were
typical. When the welfare application process grew more complicated, many
recipients dropped off the rolls. Some did not find work, choosing to move in
with family or to shelters, or to find other options. Many lost Medicaid and
food stamps. At one point, Angie's crumbling home housed 18 people, the majority
of them children. And even with the increased accountability, some recipients
still beat the system. Opal received $673 a month despite her worsening cocaine
habit and nonexistent efforts to find work.

"American Dream" shows that turmoil tends to shadow welfare recipients and
that chaos is a key barrier to economic mobility. Crime-ridden neighborhoods,
bad relationships, drug addiction, absent fathers, could all lead to a lost day
at work and subsequently a lost job. Angie, the most promising of the three
women, gains a foothold only to slip. A car is stolen; another is bought but
turns out to be a lemon, cutting her off from the highest-paying nursing home
jobs in Milwaukee's suburbs. Her courage and single-mindedness are admirable.
But working has consequences. Her children are left unsupervised, and their
school performance declines. Her teenage daughter becomes sexually active; her
sons begin to eye drug dealing. The refrigerator is constantly empty, and at one
point, 6-year-old Darrell wails in frustration: "I ain't got nothing to eat."

While welfare reform is largely viewed as a success, DeParle is reluctant to
describe it as such. Angie has progressed, but she is barely getting by. Clinton
's ideal, that the image of a mom going to work would inspire her kids, may have
been realized in Angie's case, though paradoxically; her teenage daughter became
pregnant and dropped out of high school but is working. However, DeParle quotes
Clinton as saying that welfare reform "succeeded beyond, I think, what anybody
could have rationally predicted."






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