Book Review - The New York Times

Three Women Caught in the Wake of Welfare Reform

Published: November 3, 2004

one spoke much about welfare and the poor during this election season, and that's a mixed blessing. The reforms passed by the Republican Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996 were successful enough in moving recipients into the work force so that welfare dependency has ceased to be a political issue.

But if it is a tribute to reform that politicians no longer run against welfare, it is testimony to the nation's limited concern about poverty that they are also silent about improving what has emerged in the last eight years. For as Jason DeParle shows in this nuanced and compelling book, welfare reform has done a lot less than its backers expected to transform the lives of the poor and to give them, in Mr. Clinton's words, "a shot at the American Dream."

Mr. DeParle, a reporter for The New York Times who began covering the urban poor in the 1980's, takes us inside the upheaval in welfare by switching back and forth between two narratives. One is the story of three related black women who move with their children from Chicago to Milwaukee in search of lower rents and higher welfare benefits but then find themselves caught up in the crusade to bring welfare to an end. The other is the story of the politics of welfare reform, featuring Mr. Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and a supporting cast of policy experts.

Mr. DeParle tells both stories in rich detail, mixing in relevant historical background and social research with his own reporting and acknowledging his views without appearing to let them distort his account. Despite initial misgivings about the 1996 legislation, he concludes it brought about important positive changes. And despite evident sympathy for the Milwaukee women, he makes no excuses for their failings. Indeed, he is so even-handed that some readers may miss a unifying message, but the book is as complex as the subject warrants.

Of course, the experience of three welfare recipients could never capture the full complexity of the impact of welfare reform. The women's journey, however, has an archetypal character, from their family origins in Mississippi (where the ancestors of two of the three women were slaves on a plantation owned by the forebears of the notorious opponent of civil-rights laws, Senator James O. Eastland) to Chicago (where their hard-working mothers struggled to bring them up, only to see them drop out of school, give birth, and become "prison widows" when their babies' fathers went to jail) and finally to Milwaukee, where they help one another as they try to make new lives.

Mr. DeParle says he chose Milwaukee as his site for observing the impact of reform because Wisconsin was the epicenter of the welfare-reform earthquake. Sixty-six percent of recipients left welfare in the two years after Tommy G. Thompson, the governor of Wisconsin at the time, established a work requirement under a federal waiver in 1996. Of Mr. DeParle's subjects, two make the transition to low-paid jobs, while an inept system of privatized welfare agencies continues to send checks to the third as she slips deeper into crack addiction.

Nationally, the central drama in welfare reform was the antagonistic collaboration of Mr. Clinton and congressional Republicans in enacting the 1996 law. But Mr. Clinton had actually laid the groundwork for an alternative to welfare three years earlier through the expansion of the earned income tax credit, which became the nation's largest - albeit nearly invisible - antipoverty program.

It was the combination of that credit and new welfare rules that brought about the welfare revolution. Traditionally, only the nonworking poor had received cash assistance, but the money often wasn't enough to live on and many recipients had held jobs they didn't report. Under the new regime, the poor are expected to work, and when they do, they receive a supplement to their wages - the earned income tax credit - that is 100 percent federally financed and more substantial than welfare in some states ever provided.

In other words, the poor can now do exactly what the old system prohibited: work and receive additional public support to get them out of poverty. What is missing, besides stability of employment, is chiefly health insurance and child care for working mothers in low-paid jobs.

The picture that emerges from Mr. DeParle's account is of a reform that was necessary and successful but incomplete. In the four years of high prosperity after 1996, the welfare rolls dropped by 60 percent, while the number of Americans in poverty also fell. In the sluggish economy since 2000, poverty rates have increased, and median family incomes have fallen.

Still, there has been no resurgence in welfare, and the poor have done better during an economic downturn than many experts feared. In Mr. DeParle's narrative, the grinding pressures of poverty remain undiminished for the two Milwaukee women who get low-paid jobs. Even small reverses can push them into total destitution, the men in their lives experience little progress, and some of their children seem headed for trouble.

Yet Mr. DeParle leaves little doubt that welfare reform, for all its limitations, was the right thing to do. It wasn't only the poor who were stuck on welfare; so were liberals who wanted to reduce poverty but found themselves defending an unpopular program of cash handouts. A new system of work support will not only offer the poor better hope of progress but also be more consonant with American values.

But if that system is to be built, the problems of the poor need to get back on the public agenda. Mr. DeParle's book may help focus the discussion.

Paul Starr, co-editor of the American Prospect, is professor of sociology at Princeton University and author of "The Creation of the Media.''




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