Book Review - Detroit Free Press Inc.

EXTRA BENEFITS: A thoroughgoing look at the U.S. welfare system - and three women - is lively and fun

November 14, 2004

Jason DeParle is a brave man and a great talent.

A brave man because he tackles the incendiary topic of welfare reform in his new book, "American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare." And a great talent because that book is not only thoroughly reported and remarkably free of cant, it's also terrific fun to read.

Yes, a book about welfare reform that is fun to read. DeParle, a reporter for the New York Times, achieves that miracle by framing his book around the often page-turning story of three women: Angie Jobe, Jewell Reed and Opal Caples.

Angie, Jewell and Opal are cousins and close friends who come to Milwaukee in the early 1990s from Chicago because, well, because the Wisconsin welfare benefits are higher than Illinois' and the cost of living is lower. The three women have eight children among them; by the end of the book, they'll have five more. None of the fathers lives with them. They don't have steady jobs. Only Opal has a high school diploma.

Wait! Hold that thought.

So they move to Milwaukee for the bigger welfare checks, and that's where DeParle gets to know them. He is reporting on the results of Bill Clinton's voter-pleasing campaign vow to end welfare as we know it. By 1996, Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress had supplied the how, by sending welfare back to the states in block grants. Wisconsin created Wisconsin Works, a welfare-to-work program, in response.

Angie, Jewell and Opal have paid no attention to these developments when DeParle turns up to get some real-people perspective on what the lawmakers have done. Still, they open up their lives to him with rare generosity, and DeParle makes the most of that gift. He spends the next seven years visiting them at home and at work, getting to know their family and friends and spending late-night hours hearing their thoughts. He's there when Angie's lights get turned off and Jewell goes to visit her fiance in jail and Opal cuts up in job-training class, and for countless incidents in between.

What does DeParle learn? Among other things, that many assumptions about people on welfare don't apply to Angie, Jewell and Opal. Angie, for instance, doesn't see herself as a welfare mom. She sees herself as a working mom - because she does work, at various low-wage jobs - who needs welfare to make ends meet.

And when welfare ends, DeParle discovers, the women don't fall apart. Their children don't end up sleeping on grates. They find new apartments, or move in with each other, or get second jobs. "When welfare was there for the taking, they got on the bus and took it; when it wasn't, they made other plans," DeParle writes.

It's impossible to read far in "American Dream" without beginning to care very intently about how the their plans turn out.

Goes where he should go

Let's address a point that might have some readers dismissing DeParle's book out of hand. DeParle tackles it in his introduction:

"Some readers may wonder why I focused on an African-American family when nationally blacks and whites each accounted for about 40 percent of the rolls. I first chose to focus on Milwaukee, the epicenter of the antiwelfare crusade, and, as it happened, nearly 70 percent of the city's caseload was black. As the drive to end welfare began, the paradigmatic Milwaukee recipient was a black woman from Chicago whose mother or grandmother had started life in a Mississippi cotton field, a description that fits Angie, Opal, and Jewell."

DeParle, in fact, does go back to Mississippi in the 1840s to give his saga a backdrop. His exhaustive research ranges in other directions, too. He describes the battle on Capitol Hill over welfare reform. He sits with a beleaguered Wisconsin Works caseworker, Michael Steinborn, who is creative and caring but often stymied by uncooperative clients and an idiotic computer system. And DeParle goes into great detail on the fraud and incompetence by the contractors who run Wisconsin Works.

In other words, DeParle goes everywhere a discussion of welfare and reform should go and I guarantee that the historical and legislative parts will not bore you.

Now let's address another point that might have readers dismissing "American Dream." Don't the women contribute to their problems? Oh, yes, and DeParle doesn't stint on his observations.

Jewell drifts, pinning her hopes on romances with useless men. Angie quits jobs at the first glitch. Both tend to spend their earned income tax credit - the tax overhaul that provides many former welfare families with the means to make it through the year - on gifts and toys, rather than on things they really need, like a car to get to work. And so on.

And Opal - Opal's story is infuriating and tragic. Opal is addicted to crack, which she at first hides from DeParle. In the course of "American Dream," she does get clean once, through the help of a wonderful friend, a former addict. But even his care and Angie's support can't keep her from returning to crack again and again. In time, she loses her six children to family members and to foster homes, and by the end of the book, Angie, Jewell and DeParle have lost touch with her.

The Wisconsin Works bureaucracy does nothing effective to help Opal, which DeParle justly deplores. But he also raises the question: What can any system do for a person who needs a miracle?

This week, solutions

When I reviewed two books on the horrors of sexual slavery a couple of weeks ago, a few readers became annoyed with me for not offering a solution. I didn't because the lack of a solution is precisely the point: You and I need to figure out what to do.

But this time I will propose some solutions. Yes! Solutions to poverty! Let me add that these thoughts are all mine, though they come from reading between the lines of DeParle's book. DeParle himself proposes no answers. He is clearly wiser than I am.

Under personal responsibility: Finish school. There are no good, legal jobs for people who cannot read, write and do arithmetic well, as all the characters in DeParle's book discover. Second, don't get pregnant until you're educated.

You might be thinking: The obvious answer is to spend more money on schools. Maybe, but I should note that no one in "The American Dream" says that he or she didn't go to school because the buildings were crumbling or the teaching was bad. They didn't go because it was more fun to hang out with their friends and no adult forced them to go to school, instead.

Personal and parental responsibility are hard to legislate, so now let's turn to community responsibility: Aid must get to those who really need it. I'm struck how often in DeParle's book acceptable laws get undermined by incompetence and fraud.

So, are Angie and Jewell better or worse off after welfare reform? A little better off financially, and their stories are typical of the average post-welfare worker. Jewell found a new sense of self-efficacy, as psychologists would say, got a steady job at a factory and a more responsible boyfriend. Angie became a nurse's aide and eventually got a 401(k). Both are still poor, though, by any measure.

Perhaps the real improvement will come. "The country knows now what it didn't know a decade ago: that antipoverty policy can enjoy a measure of success," DeParle writes in his epilogue. "To borrow a diplomatic term, that ought to serve as a 'confidence-building' measure that encourages additional steps."

Let's hope that DeParle is around to write a book about that, too.

Copyright © 2004 Detroit Free Press Inc.






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