EXTRA BENEFITS: A thoroughgoing
look at the U.S. welfare system - and three women - is lively and fun
November 14, 2004
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.
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.
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.
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
Let's address a point that might have some readers dismissing
DeParle's book out of hand. DeParle tackles it in his introduction:
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
Let's hope that DeParle is around to write a book
about that, too.
Copyright © 2004 Detroit Free Press Inc.