Book Review - New York Post


October 10, 2004

THIS book reads like an epic novel that chronicles the lives of one extended family as each generation forges ahead with few modest hopes to counteract crippling doses of heartbreak.

But Jason DeParle's work is all the more poignant because it is true. DeParle's intimate portrait of three women and 10 kids trapped on welfare is also an intricately detailed chronicle of how decades of American policy helped to get them there, and how Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich got them off.

The three young protagonists of DeParle's story - Angie, Jewell and Opal - are black. But "welfare," as it was first conceived, pre-dated the segregated, northern ghettos the program came to sustain.

President Roosevelt viewed the 1935 aid program as a temporary measure to support widowed mothers whose husbands had never had a chance to bank Social-Security benefits because Social Security was so new. Ninety-six percent of early beneficiaries were white.

Then came the 1960s. Civil-rights activists, notably in New York, "launched a remarkably successful crusade for something not previously known to exist: 'welfare rights,' " DeParle notes. New York and other cities dropped stringent welfare-eligibility requirements, partly to quell urban riots. Caseloads of single black mothers with children doubled and doubled again.

When Angie, Jewell and Opal were born in the mid-1960s, 80 percent of black kids would spend part of their childhoods on welfare. But Angie, Jewell and Opal are not statistics, and DeParle doesn't treat them as such. He traces their family histories from the post-slavery sharecropping era of Delta Mississippi in the 1930s to the urban environs of Chicago in the 1960s.

DeParle follows the three teen mothers as they migrate further from Chicago to Milwaukee to take advantage of higher welfare benefits and lower rents there. He chronicles their journey from the welfare rolls to formal work after Clinton signed the Republican-backed law to "end welfare as we know it" in 1996.

DeParle offers no illusions about what welfare reform accomplished. Through DeParle's narrative, the program can be viewed as welfare fraud reform. Angie and Jewell long worked low-wage jobs while on welfare - indeed, during any single year, more than half of recipients worked while (illegally) collecting benefits.

When Milwaukee forced welfare recipients to work to get their checks, the women realized that they couldn't be in two places at once. So they did the economically rational thing, and opted to drop welfare to keep their private-sector jobs - which often paid more.

Nor does DeParle romanticize his subjects.

Opal lands a job at Target only to be caught stealing - and her criminal record then prevents her from getting a better job. In the end, neither welfare nor welfare reform saves Opal from falling into crack-addicted oblivion. By the early 2000s, she's lost her check and her kids - and Wisconsin's half-hearted efforts to force her into treatment haven't saved her from herself.

But DeParle does offer two stories of incremental growth. Angie and Jewell emerge as strong women. If they don't exactly thrive, they do survive - and they expect their men and their children to build on their painful progress. Jewell finds steady work as a nurse's aide after years of sporadic work and welfare - and her example spurs her longtime boyfriend to forego selling cocaine for honest work.

Welfare's end doesn't keep Angie's daughter, Kesha, from bearing two children by 19. But Kesha, unlike her mother before her, knows that welfare won't support her. "[Welfare's] for people who really need it. I like to earn my own money," she says.

And Kesha's situation is becoming an aberration. In what may be welfare reform's greatest unpredicted success, the percentage of unwed teenage mothers has plummeted in the eight years since Clinton signed that law.






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