Book Review - San jose Mercury News

In wake of welfare reform, a look at the consequences
By Charles Matthews
Mercury News

Sunday, Sep. 19, 2004

``I've spent much of my lifetime on this subject and have only grown more perplexed,'' said the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan -- the subject being welfare. And as Jason DeParle's new book unrolls the history of the United States' attempt to create a system to provide for the very poorest, and then of its attempt to radically overhaul that system, it becomes apparent why Moynihan was perplexed.

Like almost everyone, Moynihan believed that the labyrinthine American welfare system needed to be reformed. But he was not convinced that the landmark welfare reform act of 1996 was the right way to do it. He warned, ``In ten years' time we will wonder where these ragged children came from. Why are they sleeping on grates?''

Beyond statistics
Eight years later, the incidence of ragged children seems no higher than before, and welfare as a issue has hardly been mentioned in this contentious political year. Was Moynihan's prediction about the consequences of welfare reform wrong? Or is it simply that the American poor have slipped into invisibility?

In this exhaustively researched and eloquently reported book, DeParle never attempts a direct answer to those questions, but rather lays out the story of welfare reform and of the people it directly affected. On the one hand, DeParle gives us power players like Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich. On the other, he introduces us to the single mothers Opal Caples, Jewell Reed and Angie Jobe, struggling -- often admirably, sometimes neither wisely nor well -- to raise families in the housing projects and low-rent neighborhoods of Milwaukee.

DeParle begins by tracing the family history of Opal, Jewell and Angie back to a Mississippi Delta plantation, following the lead of Nicholas Lemann's book ``The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America,'' which posited a connection between the sharecropper system of the South and the persistence of poverty in the black communities of the North.

DeParle notes the many studies that observed how sharecropping debased men, fragmented the family, failed to curb domestic violence and out-of-wedlock births, and subjected people to a paternalistic order of things. ``Many of the problems blamed on `the liberal, welfare plantation' were flourishing decades before, on the not-so-liberal one,'' he comments.

But DeParle is also aware that blaming the past is simplistic, that these women have kin who didn't sink into the welfare morass, who are ``teachers, preachers, social workers, an air traffic controller, computer technicians, and a career navy man.'' The strength of his book is that his portraits of Opal, Jewell and Angie are sympathetic but also unsentimental.

They are preyed upon by flashy, unscrupulous men. The glittering goods proffered by the consumer culture lure them away from thrift. Pride and stubbornness sometimes prevent them from advancing in their jobs. Opal, the best-educated of the three, is dragged down into the crack cocaine underworld. Jewell succumbs to a sense of futility: ``She had seen nothing to suggest that cause brought effect, work brought results, or that risks would be rewarded.''

Angie, who loved to work, found the welfare system provided disincentives: ``For every $100 she earned, her package of welfare and food stamps fell by $61. She faced a higher marginal tax rate than Bill Gates did. With take-home pay of about $2.75 an hour, why bother?'' When she had a personality clash with a new supervisor, she quit -- because she could collect welfare.

But nobody loved the old system. In DeParle's words, ``it offered the needy too little to live on and despised them for taking it.'' So when a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination announced in October 1991 that, if elected, he would ``end welfare as we know it,'' people took notice. But President Clinton did nothing swiftly and decisively, and it was not until his political opposite number, Gingrich, came to power that talk about welfare reform turned into action -- though not without a good deal of posturing by those two titanic egos.

DeParle, who has covered welfare for the New York Times for more than a decade, gives us a lucid account of how the 1996 act that turned the welfare system over to the states took shape, and how it played out for welfare recipients. He focuses on Wisconsin, where a ``workfare'' system designed with good intentions was undermined by fraud and greed when it was ``privatized.''

He also acknowledges that concentrating on Angie, Opal and Jewell skews the emphasis of his book toward black welfare recipients ``when nationally blacks and whites each accounted for about 40 percent of the rolls.'' On the other hand, he observes, ``Given their share of the national population, black families were more than six times as likely as whites to receive a welfare check.''

Peripheral issues
With the economy booming in the later '90s, Angie, Jewell and Opal had no problem finding work. But they had other problems -- transportation, health insurance, child care, schools, and in Opal's case the easy access to drugs -- that haven't been addressed with a fervor equal to the one for reforming welfare. And the book ends on a disturbing note. Just before her 17th birthday, Angie's daughter Kesha got pregnant. ``The baby's father was fourteen. She broke the news at his eighth-grade graduation and scarcely heard from him again.'' It will take more than welfare reform to end that tragic cycle.

My only problem with DeParle's book is its title, ``American Dream,'' a cliche so vaporous that it evokes everything from becoming a citizen to buying a Hummer, and hence signifies nothing. Which is a pity because this is a significant book -- clear-headed, deeply sensitive and richly informative.






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