Book Review - New Orleans Times Picayune review

Waking up
Journalist Jason DeParle writes incisively of how politics sabotaged welfare reform and real lives slipped through the cracks
By Lawrence N. Powell
Contributing writer

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Bill Clinton often says ending welfare as we knew it was his presidency's greatest achievement. He can't be thinking of the social results. They've been mixed. Welfare reform caused the rolls to collapse. It propelled millions of single mothers into low-wage jobs. But it didn't change lives or enhance the life chances of those who left welfare or their children -- nor shore up the two-parent family and eliminate the underclass. Welfare reform's signal accomplishment was removing from electoral politics a toxic issue that fueled the likes of David Duke. That was Clinton's chief motivation all along. As a "New Democrat," he hoped ending welfare might usher in a new era of poverty politics and revive liberalism itself. This has yet to happen.

Jason DeParle, who wrote for The Times-Picayune before moving on to The New York Times, has been covering welfare reform for the past dozen years. "American Dream" is something of a lab report. DeParle approaches the subject not through social science data sets but the closely observed lives of three single mothers and their 10 children -- all with proximate roots in the Mississippi Delta -- who moved from the Chicago south side to the "welfare belt" of Milwaukee in search of cheaper rents and larger benefits. They had no way of knowing they had just arrived in what was about to become the world's most famous "welfare-eradication zone."

Welfare reform in Wisconsin, better known as W-2 ("Wisconsin Works"), was the signature policy of then Gov. Tommy Thompson, currently President Bush's Secretary of Health and Human Services. Renowned for LaFollette Progressivism and municipal socialism, not to mention an aggressive welfare rights movement in the 1960s, the Badger State was an improbable setting for reverse social engineering. And Thompson, heretofore a relatively unknown state lawmaker widely regarded as "Dr. No," seemed an equally unlikely reformer. But he rode welfare to an upset victory in 1986 and went on to become the longest-serving governor in state history. What subsequently came out of Wisconsin had an enormous impact on national politics.

In Washington the road to welfare reform had more hairpin turns than an alpine switchback. Its defining slogan -- "ending welfare as we know it" -- preceded policy. Clinton, policy wonk extraordinaire, was oddly detached from the planning process. His main contribution was to set off a bidding war with Republicans, who were furious at his purloining a winning issue and, after securing control of the House in 1994, hell-bent on stealing it back. The bombastic but backroom savvy Newt Gingrich (a Tulane-trained historian) led the charge, enacting in 79 days what Clinton took three years to draft. It was almost Orwellian how the new speaker of the House redefined compassion. Instead of attacking the poor, as Reagan did, for abusing federal programs, DeParle writes, "Gingrich attacked programs for abusing the poor." The 1995 House bill was a veritable state rights revolution, converting an entitlement program into a block grant, and standing Clinton's policy preferences on their heads: budget cuts instead of increases, a work requirement without guaranteed work, hard time limits followed by an arbitrary end of benefits. Arkansas' man from Hope had entered the White House with the mantra "spend more, demand more"; Gingrich said "demand more."

Gingrich's House bill wouldn't emerge from the Senate and be signed into law for another 15 months, following two Clinton vetoes. Even so, the die had been cast. The only speed bump slowing down the Republican juggernaut was internal division over imposing lifetime bans against pregnant single mothers. (The religious right, fearing it might encourage the poor to have abortions, defeated the ban.) Senate Democrats were rudderless, constantly shifting to the right in order to stay united. New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan provided scant leadership. Despite his long-standing identification with welfare, DeParle writes, Moynihan was "essentially left to argue that "the country faced an earthshaking new problem about which it should do nothing." There followed Gingrich's petulant closure of the federal government, more evasions and equivocations by Bill Clinton, and a calculated but losing gamble by Gingrich and a party-switching Louisiana Congressman named Jimmy Hayes (now a lawyer in New Orleans) to pass a bill they believed would destroy the Democrats no matter how the president wielded his pen. Attuned to polls showing that a veto would transform his 15-point lead over Bob Dole into a three-point deficit, Clinton signed the Personal Welfare and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act on July 31, 1996. Scarcely a murmur arose on the left. Support for cash assistance to able-bodied single women, especially black women, had cratered as working- and middle-class mothers streamed into the work force.

What happened next astonished everyone save for a few ideological conservatives: the welfare rolls wasted away -- by 63 percent nationally and a breathtaking 91 percent in Wisconsin. Driving down Milwaukee's numbers was a jowly "right-wing idealist" named Jason Turner, whose prior experience with the poor was as a slumlord. Even before designing the W-2 program, Turner used waivers from Clinton's administration to shake up the welfare bureaucracy at every level, requiring social service agencies actually to place clients in jobs, imposing dumb and dull community service requirements, and intensifying the hassle of becoming eligible for welfare.

The hassle factor was probably decisive. The rolls collapsed not merely because of a surging economy and tougher requirements, but because countless clients had decided the new application process wasn't worth the candle. As anyone who has worked with the urban poor knows, most women on welfare already worked -- albeit irregularly. They just never reported it to authorities. Under-the-table wages plus cash contributions from boyfriends were their other sources of income. Few survive on welfare alone. The three single mothers tracked by DeParle all learned to cope under the new system. Beer-chugging and tough-talking Angie, the most interesting of the group, took pride in her caretaking role as a nursing assistant in old age facilities -- work that may be more dangerous than coal mining. Jewell, the sister of the life term-serving father of Angie's three children, was less enamored of work but lucked out -- sort of -- in her choice of boyfriends, a drug-dealing pimp who saw himself as a talent scout in the great American tradition of middlemen but went straight after serving a short prison sentence. Opal, the last and smartest of the trio, manipulated the system into abetting her crack habit. She eventually disappeared into the city's "smoke houses," despite Turner's misplaced faith that tough love would force addicts like Opal to deal with their problem. Far from viewing themselves as trapped in dependency, all these women were proud of their resilience. (The main reason they got on welfare in the first place was to gain independence from the men in their lives, white and black.) " 'With welfare or without it,' Angie said, 'you just learned how to survive.' "

DeParle does a remarkable job tracing the arc of Angie, Jewell, and Opal's lives. He shuns sentimentality and middle-class moralizing. His women are tough, profane and sad. They make wrong decisions, and you cringe. They hustle the system, and you shake your head. Then they surprise you by climbing out of bed in the middle of a frigid Wisconsin night to catch the van to suburban nursing homes in order to work double shifts. And you marvel at their habits of mutuality, their sharing of food stamps and bedrooms when friends and acquaintances are kicked to the curb. The lives of poor black women often operate like one gigantic favor bank; DeParle brilliantly captures this gritty reality. "American Dream" has the scope of Nicholas Lemann's seminal study, "The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America," and the intimacy of Alex Kotlowitz's touching "There Are No Children Here." It might even become an instant classic along the lines of Anthony Lukas' "Common Ground."

So, were Angie, Jewell, and Opal better off as a result of ending welfare? "Probably, by a bit," DeParle says wryly. Their net income was up a tad, thanks to the little-known Earned Income Tax Credit program Clinton doubled in his first term. Some states used the welfare windfall resulting from the shrinking rolls to make sound investments in such welfare-transition programs as child care, after school programs, health care and transportation. Louisiana used a substantial portion of its anti-poverty bonus to finance Head Start programs. Too many states, though, invested their non-recurring payout in tax cuts and highways. (So much for the claim that the states could do a better job of managing welfare than Washington.) To its credit Wisconsin financed a welfare transition program as big as Tommy Thompson's boasts, but that hardly saved W-2 from scandal after the state opted to privatize welfare, awarding one mega-contract to a company that traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Auditors later forced the firm to refund large sums for unallowable public relations expenditures. Jason Turner, after relocating to the more lucrative welfare pastures of New York City, was caught in a procurement scandal that reeked of cronyism. As welfare reform played out, state-by-state, the result was "half a safety net."

The important question is whether welfare reform, as a whole, changed lives. Here the answer is an unqualified no. True, mass destitution never materialized. But too many poor families now approach the end of the month with bare pantries. The children of working mothers are not better off, despite fatuous declarations by conservatives and neo-liberals that having a full-time breadwinner as a parent would instill alarm-clock discipline and provide role-model inspiration. Opal literally lost her children, some to foster care, but so did the hard-working Angie by virtue of long hours out of the home, as her children failed in school, got enmeshed in drugs, and joined the ranks of teenage motherhood. As for the men who paraded through Angie's life, no amount of gender-centered welfare reform can help them. They typify the low-income, urban black men who continue to withdraw from the labor market at alarming rates, often ending up in prison, especially in Louisiana, whose rates of incarceration lead the nation (and the world).

Where do we go from here? The prospects for an agenda built around the needs of the working poor are not very bright in this age of tax cuts for the wealthy and ballooning deficits. Nor does it make sense to expect reform leadership out of Washington. Now that the conservative movement's new federalism has succeeded in devolving power and resources back to the states, progressives perforce will have to wage the battle on the local level. But perhaps it is about time they re-learned what their ideological opponents have long since rediscovered: All politics is local. That's where the progressive movement started a century ago. Let's hope we are about to witness its second coming.
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Lawrence N. Powell is a professor of history at Tulane University and the author of "Troubled Memory: Anne Levy, the Holocaust and David Duke's Louisiana."







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