Book Review - Dissent Magazine


After Welfare
by David Glenn

Summer 2004

Jason DeParle's American Dream tells the story of three Milwaukee women who left welfare in the mid-1990s, at the moment when the federal government (with the state of Wisconsin a few steps ahead) launched the new regime of penalties, time limits, and work requirements. The book is the product of a decade of labor, and it is a superb piece of reporting and narrative. DeParle seems to have been deeply moved by the struggles he encountered, but his prose has none of the sentimentality or heavy breathing that one finds in, say, Jonathan Kozol. It's clear from the outset that DeParle is, in some broad sense, a Clintonite, but he doesn't bully the reader into any particular frame of political analysis. He lets his stories simmer on the page.

Most of the book is written at ground level, with a tight focus on an extended family-the three women at its heart are Opal Caples, Angela Jobe, and Jewell Reed-that moved to Milwaukee from the south side of Chicago during the early 1990s. Jobe was the first to make the move north. In a 1991 gang conflict, her boyfriend, Greg Reed (who is Jewell's brother), was among a group of men who shot and killed a fourteen-year-old bystander. After Greg was given a decades-long prison sentence, Jobe decided to make a new start in a smaller city with cheaper rent and better public benefits. She was twenty-five years old, with three children and no high school diploma.

Reed and Caples and their children followed soon thereafter. During the last decade, the three women have taken low-wage jobs in nursing homes, motels, post offices, discount stores, and a tool-making plant. They have wrestled with the post-welfare social-service bureaucracy. They have had a few more children and have tried to keep them healthy. They have fallen in love with various men, some of whom have been talented and generous and some of whom have been petty and violent. Caples has lost many years of her life to a full-bore cocaine addiction.

Some people on the left might object that DeParle devotes too much attention to personal and domestic crises and not enough to the economic and political structures that constrain his subjects' lives. Such critics might point out that many more pages are set in the protagonists' kitchens than in their workplaces, and that DeParle's treatment of the labor market is rather thin. (The book includes several deftly written Washington-based chapters about the evolution of the 1996 federal welfare-reform bill, but not much is said about the trade policies, labor laws, and persistent racism that have shaped the terrain for low-wage Milwaukee workers.)

A certain version of that complaint is probably correct: there is something subtly misleading, and falsely paralyzing, in DeParle's narrow lens on the post-welfare world. I'll return to that point later. The book's virtues, however, outweigh that problem. DeParle's thick description of one extended family's life is worth careful reflection precisely because it does not map neatly onto left-liberals' usual arguments about jobs, wages, and caregiving. There is nothing here that could be distilled into a policy tract. DeParle offers a highly complex response to the welfare debates that tore apart the Democratic Party a decade ago.

The first thing to say in the book's defense is that it does, in fact, reveal a great deal about the economic landscape. DeParle's protagonists have continued to struggle, even after abandoning the welfare system and taking full-time jobs. Jobe's income from work more than doubled in the late 1990s and was boosted even further by the earned income tax credit; but in the process she lost her health insurance and, of course, her cash welfare benefits. DeParle estimates that her total income rose from $19,700 to $23,200, and that half of that gain was soaked up by the transportation costs associated with her new jobs. On that money she raised four children-five, after she took in one of Caples's daughters.

The book also offers evidence that certain employers welcomed welfare reform as an opportunity to capture a compliant and desperate labor force. When DeParle visited Mississippi, in order to see the plantation where an ancestor of Reed's and Caples's had been enslaved (and where Reed's mother was born, in 1937), the manager of a minimum-wage catfish-processing factory told him that he was delighted with welfare reform: "If they can go back to Uncle Sam, you can't keep them in the plant."

We also read harrowing tales of incompetence and worse, in the new breed of post-welfare agencies. Some of this material has to do with the idiosyncratic system in Milwaukee County, where in 1997 the welfare administration was divided into five regions that were farmed out to private agencies (four nonprofit and one for-profit). Despite the peculiarities of this arrangement, DeParle's stories suggest problems that are probably occurring nationally.

First, agencies' signals to clients have sometimes been cold and confusing. Before the 1997 privatization, Reed signed up for a nursing-aide class, waited for months, and then was told that it had been canceled. Later in the decade, the new privatized agencies found themselves awash in money, because their state contracts were fixed at a time before the welfare rolls dropped much more sharply than anyone had expected. (The flight from the system is not so surprising in retrospect; imagine the hassles that Reed faced with the nursing-aide class, multiplied by ten thousand.) The agencies' huge cash reserves presented an excellent opportunity to address the needs of the (often highly troubled) people who remained on the rolls, including Caples, who was sliding into cocaine addiction. But that opportunity was mostly squandered. Ill-trained caseworkers failed to notice how badly Caples was sinking: "A look inside [her residence] would have revealed a drug nest," DeParle writes. "A call to the police would have disclosed a warrant for Opal's arrest. A check with the Milwaukee public schools would have revealed that she didn't have her kids. Instead, Maximus sent her to MaxAcademy."

MaxAcademy, you will have guessed, is the name of the motivational job-preparation class offered by the for-profit Maximus Corporation, which was one of the five agencies that originally shared the Milwaukee County contract. Elsewhere we learn that when public officials would visit Maximus, hoping to learn how to duplicate Milwaukee's alleged successes, the company would sometimes fill the seats of its MaxAcademy with staff members posing as clients.

And it gets worse: this past spring, one of the nonprofit agencies, the Opportunities Industrial Corporation, was charged with bribing a state senator to the tune of $270,000. There is evidence that caseworkers have sometimes pressured clients for sex or drugs. A man named Corey Daniels, on parole after arrests for kidnapping, battery, and impersonating a police officer, was hired as a caseworker by Maximus-and then arrested for extorting money from his clients. Maximus spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on coffee mugs and other cheap promotional items. DeParle tells us, "Entries in the auditors' report literally read like this: Vendor: 'Unknown.' Item purchased: 'Unknown.' Welfare funds expended: '$5,302.'" This at a time when Milwaukee's homeless shelters were overflowing.

The second, and thornier, point for the defense concerns DeParle's treatment of the chaos and self-destruction that have sometimes been part of these women's lives. This kind of narrative has often been a source of contention. Two years ago, the sociologist Loïc Wacquant wrote a polemic in which he denounced Katherine Newman, Elijah Anderson, and other recent chroniclers of urban poverty for allegedly setting up false dichotomies between the "deserving" poor and their less-deserving, more troubled neighbors. Wacquant fears that vivid tales of the inner city can easily slip into a kind of conservatism, whatever their authors' ostensible politics. Along similar lines, Adolph Reed Jr. wrote a powerful essay in 1992 in which he condemned "lurid, evocative journalism that reproduces obnoxious racial and class prejudices." He continued, "I do not want to hear another word about drugs or crime without hearing about decent jobs, adequate housing, and egalitarian education in the same breath."

DeParle's book contains a number of lurid and evocative stories, beginning with the Chicago gang shooting that, in one sense, sets his entire narrative into motion. We also meet a pimp who boasts of the violence he inflicts on the women who work for him ("What you mean, bitch, telling me you ain't going to work?") and visit a crack house that DeParle paints as "a rollicking bazaar, notorious enough to attract motorists off the nearby interstate. Opal paid $250 a month to sleep there, pregnant, on the couch."

Despite all this, I'd say that DeParle is not guilty of the sensationalism and covert moralizing feared by Wacquant and Reed. He embeds all of his stories in a large, dense narrative that is full of quotidian detail; he never cues the reader to view his subjects as part of an exotic Other. Every figure in the book, from Washington policy wonks to short-term Milwaukee boyfriends, is presented with the same mixture of warm empathy and cool distance. And DeParle never drifts too far away from a consideration (however thin) of the structural forces at work. No one who reads this book attentively will close it with the idea that if only these people would clean up their acts and pull themselves up by their bootstraps, all would be well.

It is also the case that no leftist who reads this book attentively will come away with the idea that if only we had better jobs, housing, and health-care subsidies, all would be well. Whether one buys his preferred explanations or not (he leans very heavily on the problem of absent fathers), DeParle's book makes abundantly clear that the social crisis of the inner city is in some respects self-reinforcing and independent of the immediate economic environment. Even if one believes that all the left's efforts should go into meat-and-potatoes campaigns for racial and economic justice, it's important to reflect carefully on the social crisis, for at least two reasons.

First is the fact that conservatives have successfully persuaded Middle America that the social crisis is the fault of the left. DeParle points out that whereas Ronald Reagan had demonized "welfare queens," the Republicans of the 1990s declared that they were ending welfare for strictly compassionate reasons. They were going to "liberate" the poor from the dole, and thereby end the cycle of "twelve-year-olds having babies" and "seventeen-year-olds dying of AIDS," as Newt Gingrich's welfare stump speech put it.

This was a deeply hypocritical move: Gingrich was arguing that life on welfare deforms the human personality, but in no other context will conservatives concede that people are shaped and constrained by political and economic structures. And it has given birth to deeply hypocritical policies: the Bush administration is spending millions of dollars on "marriage encouragement" programs for poor people, but it has done very little to end the severe marriage penalties that are still built into almost all welfare programs and the earned income tax credit.

DeParle repeatedly notes that several of the major conservative welfare tropes don't seem to match reality. Have most welfare recipients been trapped in cycles of dependency? Not exactly: Caples, Jobe, and Reed were all raised by mothers with full-time jobs. Are welfare recipients radically alienated from the labor market? Again, no. Even during their peak years of welfare receipt, all three women frequently took jobs that they successfully hid from their caseworkers.

But DeParle also suggests, mostly persuasively, that the left bears some fault for the urban crisis. By discouraging marriage and discouraging formal work, welfare as we knew it probably played at least a small role in eroding social capital among the poor. If the left had been faster on its feet, it might have exploited the public's horror at the late-1980s crack epidemic in order to build support for new, better designed, more universal programs for low-wage workers and caregivers. Instead, the field was left open to an army of Newt Gingriches, who promised that slashing entitlements would surely lead to a new era of safe streets and personal responsibility.

The second reason why leftists should reflect on the social crisis is that it occupies so much of the psychic energy of the poor themselves. When I reported on a campaign to unionize home-health-care workers in Milwaukee in 2001, accompanying workers as they knocked on one another's doors, I noticed how quickly conversations would move from anxiety about wages to anxiety about crime. One woman spent several minutes pointing out a hole in her back door; burglars had bashed through it a few days earlier and menaced her elderly grandmother. Another woman, one of the lead organizers, heard the gunshot when a man sitting in a car next door to her was murdered that summer. In earlier reporting among ex-welfare recipients in Milwaukee, I often heard it said that political activism is a good way to get yourself killed: look at what happened to Harold Washington. (There is a widespread belief that Washington, Chicago's first black mayor, who died of a heart attack in 1987, was somehow murdered by Chicago's white establishment.) Organizing campaigns among the urban poor today have to fight uphill against a tremendous amount of alienation, isolation, and fear. (By contrast, most of the great upsurges of the American left, from Flint to Montgomery, grew from communities in which there were denser social networks and higher levels of everyday trust.)

A similar point is apparent in DeParle's book. Caples, Jobe, and Reed tend to see their jobs as background noise; if they lose one low-wage job, they can find another one relatively easily. They're more inclined to worry about what do to with an alcoholic boyfriend or a recalcitrant son-things over which they exercise at least some control-than about any farfetched scheme to organize a union or to change the labor market to their advantage.

And this is where I fear that DeParle's project is subtly misleading. After nearly a decade of reporting about this extended family, he himself seems to have assimilated a kitchen-table view that ignores certain over-the-horizon possibilities. Toward the end of the book-and also in an August New York Times Magazine article that extends the book's narrative-DeParle concentrates heavily on the crises of marriage and absent fathers in Milwaukee. These are serious problems, of course. It's impossible to talk about the suffering of Caples, Jobe, and Reed without talking about family breakdown.

But it seems unfortunate that a ten-year project about welfare has ended here-especially given that DeParle doubts that welfare played a major role in causing family breakdown in the first place and also seems to doubt that public policy can do much to repair family breakdown today. We're left with the helpless feeling of watching people drift from crisis to crisis.

What's missing is a sustained discussion of public policies that might actually do something to alleviate some portion of Milwaukee's suffering: universal health insurance, a higher minimum wage, an extended earned income tax credit, universal job and apprenticeship programs, caregivers' allowances. These might sound fanciful-but so, in 1991, did the notion that welfare entitlements would be abolished. That's one perverse comfort that people on the left can take from this excellent book: there are such things as policy earthquakes. Things can change more quickly than even the most ambitious campaigners dare to hope.

David Glenn has written for the Nation, Lingua Franca, and the New York Times Book Review.

 

 

 

 
 
  

 

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