Book Review - New York Times

'American Dream': Welfare as We Knew It

September 26, 2004

WELFARE. Has any other word in our language shifted farther, semantically, from benign origins? Shorthand for the unobjectionable federal program of the 1930's, Aid to Families With Dependent Children, by the 1970's, if not before, ''welfare'' became a bitter repository for conflicting views of community, society and human nature. By 1996, President Bill Clinton's campaign promise to ''end welfare as we know it'' -- then a startling repudiation of Democratic party dogma -- was fulfilled by passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.

Jason DeParle, a senior writer for The New York Times, had been reporting on inner-city life for more than a decade when ''welfare reform'' took hold, and, he says, he ''inevitably . . . had opinions.'' Resolving to clean his ''mental slate,'' DeParle set out to explore the effects of the landmark law. The courageous and deeply disturbing result, ''American Dream,'' confounds the clichés of the left as well as the right about race, poverty, class and opportunity in the early 21st century.

DeParle begins by introducing the three women he will follow for much of a decade. On the surface, Angie Jobe, Jewell Reed and Opal Caples personify the welfare-recipient stereotype: black single mothers who had spent their adult lives on welfare, and whose on-again-off-again boyfriends included drug dealers and, in one case, men involved in a shooting gone wrong that killed a 14-year-old girl. In 1991, in search of Wisconsin's higher benefits, the three had moved from the high-rise projects of Chicago and set up house together in the less threatening but equally isolated tripledecker ghettos of central Milwaukee.

The surface is where the assumptions end. Jewell and Opal share an ancestor, a slave in the Mississippi of 1835 named Frank Caples; a Caples descendant is the father of Angie's children. The Capleses were to become sharecropping tenants on the Delta plantation owned by Senator James Eastland, legendary for his virulent opposition to black advancement. DeParle connects the social dislocation and disorder that followed the Capleses north -- family breakdown, enduring poverty, lack of educational achievement -- to the exploitative and degrading plantation experience. And with this search through the past for a greater understanding of the present, ''American Dream'' begins to transcend journalism.

Early on, DeParle takes what many writers would consider to be an enormous rhetorical risk: he sets aside the emblematic personal stories for a brief but deft political and economic history of American welfare policy. The author traces the maze of political intrigue, horse-trading and demagogy -- from Franklin Roosevelt to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Ronald Reagan and the Wisconsin governor who is now secretary of health and human services, Tommy Thompson -- that led to the new world of reform and casts an ever-lengthening shadow over the Caples women. Wisconsin had come early to ''reform,'' in part because of the influx of people like Angie, Jewell and Opal; even before the national program took hold, they were subject to a surreal series of bureaucratic rules and expectations, often imposed and raggedly administered by privatized social service agencies whose managers and employees seem themselves in need of the counseling and remediation they purport to dispense.

As the women battle their way through the rough textures and unending difficulties of their daily lives, what DeParle finds most chilling is how they are hamstrung, not by the liberal litany of social and historical wrongs or the conservative catalog of mistakes made and chances missed, but rather by a deadening circumscription of personal horizon. When Angie, Jewell and Opal talked about themselves, ''they didn't talk of thwarted ambition, of things they had sought but couldn't achieve. . . . The real theme of their early lives was profound alienation -- not of hopes discarded but of hopes that never took shape.''

It is not that they are not valiant. All three see themselves not as dependent pariahs, but as survivors; they do, in fact, both before and after welfare reform, show resilience: ''While Jewell's stomach bled'' with undiagnosed ulcers, DeParle writes, ''she worked two jobs. From a terrible depression, Angie struggled back to work, while raising four kids. . . . When I asked how they pictured themselves, Angie and Jewell each began with the words: 'I'm strong.' '' Only Opal falls by the wayside, overcome in the end by a closely, and tragically, guarded secret.

Angie and Jewell are success stories, but only because the goal of welfare reform -- moving people off the rolls and into work -- was so limited. Angie has worked since 1997 as an aide at nursing homes, performing backbreaking labor paying not much more than the minimum wage; she herself has no health coverage. Her children, at home and unsupervised, are falling into familiar patterns of unwed pregnancy and truancy. As DeParle relates, ''having thrown herself into work, she lost faith that hard work pays.'' Angie feels that she and her family are ''just treading water. Just making it, that's all.''

STILL, in the misshapen drive to end welfare -- with its lack of health and child care, meaningful educational opportunity and provisions for a living wage -- DeParle, oddly enough, finds the seeds of possibility. ''Whatever hardships the bill left untouched, whatever corners of inner-city life it may never reach,'' he writes, ''the decade renewed a forgotten lesson: that progress is possible on problems that seemed impervious to change.''

He ends with what could be construed as a plea for the Angies and the Jewells and the millions of American working poor pushed, often brutally, from the rolls: ''In ending welfare, the country took away their single largest source of income. They didn't lobby or sue. They didn't march or riot. They made their way against the odds into wearying, underpaid jobs. And that does now entitle them to something -- to 'a shot at the American Dream' more promising than the one they've received.'' Through his scrupulous attention, DeParle challenges the nation to contemplate the dreams, or lack thereof, within the American dream.

Anthony Walton teaches English at Bowdoin College. He is the author of ''Mississippi: An American Journey.''







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