Selected Excerpts
No matter what your public policy interest, American Dream is brimming with real-world examples of the way real lives are affected by the issues that many of us only discuss in philosophical terms. From child care to domestic violence to drugs, hunger, and poverty rates, there’s something in this book for everyone. Click on the topics listed below to read passages from American Dream.

The Topics                

Caseload declines
Child care
Child well-being
Domestic violence

Other topics covered

Drugs
Earnings and Income
Family structure
Health care

Housing/homelessness
Hunger
Minimum wage
Transportation

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Caseload declines

The welfare rolls collapsed. They collapsed in Boston and they collapsed in Phoenix. They collapsed in New York City. They fell fastest in states like Wisconsin and Florida, which made aggressive moves. But they also gave way in Texas and Illinois, which showed little bureaucratic zeal. They plunged where the economy boomed, and they plunged in stretches of the poverty belt, from New Mexico to West Virginia. Historically, the rolls had never fallen more than 8 percent in a year. By the time they leveled off in 2001, they had fallen for seven straight years by a total of 63 percent. In Wisconsin, a half-dozen counties at some point in the year had a W-2 caseload of zero. Three million families-more than 9 million people-left the rolls nationwide. Clearly something happened that neither economics nor policy fully explains. (214)

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Child Care
One afternoon, a nervous client named Kimberly Hansen told Michael she was ready to get out of the house. At twenty-five, she had been home for six years, caring for a daughter with cerebral palsy. But child care was going to be a problem: the girl needed a day-care center with transportation, wheelchair access, and someone who could feed her through a gastrointestinal tube. Previous caseworkers, following the book, had fobbed her off on an ineffective child-care referral service. Michael spent three hours calling around town and got her appointments to inspect two places….She got a job. She lost the job. She fell into a pit of depression. A doctor warned the depression stemmed from her fears of leaving Mercedes, but she wouldn't go to counseling. There are "perverts out there" in day-care centers, she told Michael. Since Mercedes can't talk, if someone tried to hurt her, Hansen wouldn't even know. Months passed until she felt ready to work again. When she did, the day-care center wouldn't let Mercedes return. Hansen owed $40 in late fees and "Ebenezer Day Care," as Michael dubbed it, wouldn't budge. (p. 256)
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Child well being
How much does having a working mother-a single, low-income working mother-enhance the life chances of the kids? Will it bring them a new shot at the American Dream? Bill Clinton, among others, saw working mothers as a source of inspiration; critics saw kids left in substandard care while the only parent they had was away. Either scenario-rising achievement or rising neglect-had a plausible logic. Now there is some data. Studies of a dozen programs have followed poor children as their mothers went to work, and collectively they have examined everything from changes in meal times and reading habits to criminal arrests…(p. 311)
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Domestic violence

Marcus got home at 1:00 a.m., full of Courvoisier. Angie rode up ninety minutes later, with Tony at the wheel. Marcus swore he saw her kissing him! He knew she had been messing with that man! Suddenly Marcus was banging on the car window and running for his shotgun. As Angie climbed the steps, Marcus was shooting at Tony's taillights. Angie brushed past him with a laugh. Hadn't she warned him that her day was coming? She taunted him with an R. Kelly song about feminine revenge-"When a Woman's Fed Up"-and locked herself in the bathroom. The next thing she knew, Marcus had blasted a hole in the ceiling outside the door. "I was thinking,'Damn!'' Angie said. This man's ``trying to kill me!'" Angie said. (p. 280)

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Drugs
One thing that Opal couldn't understand was why people smoked cocaine. What could make them rob their families, neglect their kids, even sell their bodies to get it? "I saw how bad they looked and I said, 'Man, how could they do that?'" Robert Lee's brother had started smoking Primos, cigarettes laced with crack, and when Sierra was about a year old, he rolled one for Opal. She smoked it and felt nothing. She tried it again. "And you know what?" she said. "It didn't take no time at all to get hooked. But you don't know you're hooked." A few months later, Opal was pregnant with her second child and getting high constantly. (p. 201-202)
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Earnings and Income

In ballpark terms, if you count everyone leaving welfare (including those without jobs), the average woman earned less than $9,000 in her first year off the rolls. Count workers alone, and the figure grows to about $12,000. Count steady workers (excluding those who go back on welfare), and you can get to $14,500. Their paychecks did grow with time; in Wisconsin, the earnings of the average "leaver" rose 26 percent over three years. Still, their annual earnings over the three-year stretch averaged just $10,400….With earnings of $12,700, Jewell was well ahead of the pack. With $16,100 Angie was a star. (286)* * *

As a strategy for promoting work, the law did its job: Angie's annual earnings more than doubled. Adding in tax credits (and subtracting FICA), the amount she brought home from the workplace rose by $12,200 a year. Yet the drop in welfare and food stamps cost her $8,800. On balance, she was up $3,400, a gain of 16 percent. Or was she, really? The more she worked, the more her work expenses increased. There was bus fare, babysitting, work uniforms, and snacks from the vending machine. In Angie's case, the child-care costs were minimal, since the kids mostly minded themselves. But figure just $30 week for bus rides and the stolen car, a conservative estimate, and you wipe out nearly half the gain. In leaving welfare, Angie also lost her health insurance. (p. 283-284)

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Family Structure
Launching his attack on welfare in 1994, Newt Gingrich had warned that the growth of nonmarital births threatened American "civilization." That year, 32.6 percent of children were born outside of marriage. As Jewell was visiting Ken in prison, hoping to have his baby, the figure was up to 33.0 percent, and a few years later it hit 34.0 percent. There may be no statistic that said more about the prospects of the next generation. By 2002, 23.0 percent of whites, 43.5 percent of Hispanics, and 68.2 percent of African Americans were born outside of marriage-a total of 1.4 million kids. That doesn't mean that the welfare bill had no effect on childbearing. The increase in nonmarital births slowed to a crawl and did so just as the attacks on "illegitimacy" hit fever pitch. It would be remarkable if that were pure coincidence…. (p. 294)
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Health care
The kids remained on Medicaid, which was crucial with Kesha's asthma attacks. But for twenty of her first thirty-six months off the rolls, Angie earned just enough to get disqualified….Other than her back, Angie was healthy. Jewell was not. She also lost her health insurance for two years, and Jewell had bleeding ulcers. "I just dealt with that pain," she said. "I just got a lot of Tums, Rolaids, stuff like that." In the end, she was hospitalized and her wages were garnished to pay the bill, a circumstance that struck her as nothing unusual. "Anybody that works is gonna get their check garnished," she said. "Everybody in Milwaukee owes a hospital bill." (p. 283)
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Housing/Homelessness

With the pit bulls having destroyed the attic, Angie was out of space. The boys shared a foldout sofa in the living room, while Opal, Kesha, and Brierra squeezed into one bed and Angie and Marcus shared the other. The Concordia Street house was a shambles. The second-floor balcony dropped rails like rotted teeth, and so many roaches swarmed about that Opal lay awake worried that one would crawl in Brierra's ear. Angie blamed the landlord for not fixing things. The landlord blamed Angie for not paying the rent and tried to evict her twice. (p. 266)
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One of the saddest sights I encountered in Milwaukee was that of Amber Peck, a fiftyish woman who lost her check, her apartment, and after a drug binge, her spot in a homeless shelter. We met on a snowy February night, and I gave her a ride to a cross-town church that had opened its floors to the dispossessed. She said that while she had understood the work rules, she couldn't bring herself to comply. "I stay depressed all the time." Then gripping two shopping bags filled with old clothes, she picked her way across an icy church lawn to lie on the hard, lonely floor.… A few years later, I went looking for Amber Peck, wondering whatever had become of her impossibly sad silhouette. The trail led to a low-income Samaritan named Eula Edwards. Amber was locked up on a drug charge, and Edwards was relieved. Before her arrest, Amber had been beaten on the streets and all but left for dead. (p. 169-70)

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Hunger

Angie was too proud to say that anyone in the house went hungry-"We survive! Ain't nobody starving in there!"-but it wasn't unusual at the end of the month to find the refrigerator reduced to a box of fish sticks and a bottle of ketchup. Half the household fights, it seemed, revolved around a shortage of food. Opal was supposed to help stock the fridge, but she sold some of her stamps for spending money and kept a cache of snacks locked in her room. One morning, after she beat Darrell to the last drop of milk for the cereal, the five-year-old flung himself to the floor.
"What you crying for, boy?" she said.
"I ain't got nothing to eat! I'm hungry!" he said.
"You need a good butt-whipping, Darrell!" Opal said.
Darrell wasn't the only one missing a meal. Called in to work on her thirty-third birthday, Angie was broke and didn't eat all day. The loss of her food stamps left her incensed. (p. 289-291)
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In my own travels through postwelfare life, I was struck by how many working families complained about facing depleted cupboards-or about just plain going hungry. …Food wasn't on my mind when I stopped by Pulaski High School to talk to some students with welfare-to-work moms. But it was on the minds of the kids, who commandeered the conversation with macabre jokes about Ramen noodles and generic cereal. When I asked how many had recently gone to bed hungry, four out of five raised their hands. (p. 287)

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Minimum wage
At $5.15 an hour, the real value of the minimum wage is lower than in 1950 when Hattie Mae was still picking cotton. (p. 328).
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Transportation
Angie bought the kids new beds and sank most of the rest, about $2,000, into another car. A "nice car." A car on the outer edges of what she could afford. The salesman said he knew the previous owner and promised the car had been fastidiously maintained. It broke down five times in the first few weeks. Then it threw a rod. In the spring of 1997, Angie had the useless hulk towed back to the lot, where it sat as a smoldering monument to the salesman's empty assurances. "It was towed more than it was driven!" she said. A poor black woman with a melted engine is not one of society's more empowered figures. But what she lacked in automotive sophistication, Angie made up for with fury. (P. 179)
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Other Topics Covered

Abortion
Boyfriends
Caseload declines
Casework
Child support
Child well-being
Community service jobs
Diversion
Earnings and income

Entitlement
Gangs
Incarceration
Inequality
Job-search class
Mental health
Minimum wage
Neighborhoods

Payroll Taxes
Privatization
Prostitution
Sanctions and time limits
Self-efficacy
Sexual abuse
Teen pregnancy
Transportation
 
 
  
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