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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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.)
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.
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.