AMERICAN DREAM: THREE WOMEN,
TEN KIDS AND A NATION'S DRIVE TO END WELFARE
New York Times reporter chronicles the post-Clinton welfare landscape.
By Scott Duke Harris
Nothing marked Bill Clinton
as a new kind of Democrat more than his campaign pledge to "end welfare as
we know it." Both blunt and vague, the promise resonated with a view that
the social safety net had become a web that ensnared the underclass, particularly
African Americans, in a gloomy pathology of dependency. Too many of the poor,
Clinton said, couldn't even dream the American Dream.
Dream is the melancholy title Jason DeParle of the New York Times chose for his
richly researched, beautifully written chronicle of the era that fulfilled Clinton's
pledge. Political abstractions are juxtaposed against the personal dramas of three
emblematic unwed mothers. By the book's end, the women have 10 children between
them, and one, at age 35, is already a grandmother. At first glance, Angie, Jewell,
and Opal seem to justify all the criticisms of the welfare system: Each new birth
ensures a larger welfare check; they move from Chicago to Milwaukee for higher
benefits and cheaper rent; they take jobs without telling the welfare office.
Fathers tend to be out of the picturetwo are in prison for murder.
DeParle's intimate reporting reveals that welfare dependence was a symptom, not
a cause, of the chaotic happenstance of their lives. On a wrenching day when Angie,
in the stirrups preparing to end an unwanted pregnancy, abruptly halts the procedure,
it is clear that the prospect of a larger check is the last thing on her mind.
These women are survi- vors, scuffling by. When Washington moves to reform welfare,
they shrug it off: They'll manage. Two do so, marginally improving their lots.
The third, with no net to catch her, finds a bleaker fate.
reform is recalled as a triumph for Clinton, whose policy benefited from a robust
economy. DeParle's judgment: The root cause of troubles in the African American
underclass was never welfare. But nobody has figured out how to legislate fatherhood.