by Jacob S. Hacker
October 7, 2004
1994, Republicans in California distributed a voter education pamphlet titled
"The Welfare Mess." On its cover was a vivid montage of ghetto pathology:
food stamps intermixed with hundred-dollar bills, drug paraphernalia alongside
a snub-nosed pistol. Inside, the pamphlet catalogued welfare's pernicious effects.
Teen pregnancy, runaway crime, moral decay, even falling SAT scores -- all were
blamed on a welfare system run amok. The pamphlet closed with a dire warning:
"If You Don't Vote, THEY WIN."
the Republican Party that dramatically seized Congress in 1994 has a near-stranglehold
on power. It runs all three branches of government, it holds a majority of governorships,
and it is led by the most conservative president to occupy the modern Oval Office.
And yet the anti-welfare jeremiads that the right once so effectively employed
are gone. The "d-words" once on every conservative's lips -- "dependence,"
"deviance," "dysfunction" -- are virtually unspoken. George
W. Bush has governed mostly from the right, but he ran for office as a "compassionate
conservative," barely mentioning welfare. Since September 2002, the welfare
reform bill that congressional Republicans engineered and President Clinton signed
in 1996 has been up for congressional renewal, but almost no one outside of a
narrow circle of politicos and policymakers is paying attention.
is an odd and improbable development -- one of the most wrenching and divisive
issues in America wiped clean from the slate of our politics like scribbling from
a chalkboard. Yet it is perhaps no more odd or improbable than the fact that a
fiscally tiny program with an unobjectionable title ("Aid to Families with
Dependent Children") and a clientele that never exceeded 6 percent of the
population became liberalism's symbolic beachhead and conservatives' poster child
for everything wrong with American social policy.
decades, welfare took on an outsize importance in public debate. (In a notorious
poll in 1994, Americans identified the program -- which, at its peak, had a federal
price tag of roughly $14 billion, or less than one-twentieth the expenditures
of Social Security -- as one of the two largest items in the federal budget.)
It was the prism through which all discussions of economic disadvantage eventually
passed, refracting even sympathetic analyses into decrepit inner cities and their
dispossessed, dangerous, largely dark-skinned residents. In the wake of welfare
reform, however, welfare is scarcely on the agenda at all. Nor, for that matter,
is economic disadvantage. From a tiny program that earned the ire of every ideological
viewpoint, welfare has become just a tiny program -- drained of the rancor and
conflict, but also of the larger questions about opportunity, assistance, and
obligation that our nation's leaders, now more than ever, should be asking.
wasn't supposed to be this way. When welfare reform passed and the welfare rolls
unexpectedly plummeted -- falling, by 2001, to less than half their 1994 high
-- liberals saw a silver lining in the clouds. Welfare reform was neither the
abject disaster many of them feared nor the unmitigated triumph their opponents
celebrated. It was instead an opportunity to shift assistance toward the one group
that all sides agreed deserved help: the working poor. Without the burden of stigma,
the assumption of indolence, the taint of crime, America's anti-poverty efforts
would take a new direction -- a direction signaled by Clinton's massive expansion
of the Earned Income Tax Credit for those who "work hard and play by the
rules" but still have trouble making ends meet. Out of the ashes of reform
would emerge a re-invigorated debate about how best to help working families cope
with the hardships and the uncertainties of an increasingly insecure economy.
Perhaps that was too much to expect. Perhaps
it was forestalled by Bush's assumption of the presidency. Yet tracing the eight
years since welfare reform, one cannot help but be struck by the nearsilence that
has trailed in its wake. In August, the Census Bureau announced that nearly one-fifth
of children were poor in 2003, poverty rates had climbed for a third straight
year, and a record 45 million Americans lacked health insurance. No one other
than a few activists seemed to notice. It is as if we could speak of the dark
passages in the American narrative of advancement only by talking about the horrors
of welfare. Now, with the debate over welfare cut down to a size more in line
with the program's true importance, we have no language for speaking of problems
that neither welfare's demise nor welfare's continuance could ever be expected
It is one of the many virtues of
Jason DeParle's beautifully written book that it forces us to confront these problems
anew. DeParle has produced a model journalistic account of the genesis and the
aftermath of welfare reform. His important volume is many things at once: an inside
account of reform's enactment; a case study of one pioneering state, Wisconsin;
and the biographies of three welfare beneficiaries -- all living in Milwaukee,
all black, all descended from the same enslaved ancestor -- who found themselves
suddenly confronted with a transformed system. In DeParle's drama, the lives of
these three women -- Angie, Jewell, and Opal -- and their multiple children and
their rotating boyfriends take center stage. And not without reason: their experiences
are traumatic, frustrating, and often, because of the self-destructiveness the
women routinely exhibit, infuriating.
his great credit, DeParle wants his book to be more than an unvarnished account
of inner-city life. He wants it to be a chronicle of a program's rise and fall
that illuminates the choices and challenges the world's richest nation confronts
as it grapples with its perennial poverty problem. Yet in trying to carry off
this larger hat trick, DeParle comes up short. The stories he tells cannot bear
the weight of the questions he asks. Like the struggle over welfare itself, DeParle's
book passes before us as a series of vivid stories and images in which welfare
ultimately looms far larger than its power to shape the American economy or social
structure warrants. The more we see of the twisted lives of DeParle's subjects,
the less we seem to understand the massive policy transformation in which they
were caught -- or its meaning for the future of our country's social policies.
Welfare's prominent place in American public
debates always owed more to its symbolic power than to its programmatic impact.
Welfare was like a Rorschach test in which each side saw what it wanted: a stingy
system that didn't do enough to lift Americans onto the ladder of opportunity,
a permissive system that failed to uphold basic social norms. For a program more
studied than perhaps any other social policy, statistics took a backseat to stories
in discussions of welfare's effects. There were Ronald Reagan's "welfare
queens" living royally while popping out illegitimate kids. There were Newt
Gingrich's "twelve-year-olds having babies" and "seventeen-year-olds
dying of AIDS." There were tales of broken homes, drug addiction, reckless
sexuality, and rampant fraud and abuse.
was new in these representations, or in their power to provoke. From the origins
of the modern welfare system in the late 1930s -- when the sympathetically viewed
white widows who had been the original justification for welfare became the responsibility
of the federal Social Security Board rather than state welfare offices -- the
stories of pathology and fraud remained remarkably constant, if less overtly racist.
According to Michael K. Brown in Race, Money, and the American Welfare State,
the antiwelfare rhetoric of the early postwar years already contained all the
familiar themes: illegitimacy, dependence, corruption, sex. Few critics went as
far as one smear sheet circulating in New York City in the early 1960s with the
heading "Uncle Sam: Black Bastard Breeder Supreme." But there was little
in the contemporary cries of welfare's critics that was not presaged in a 1963
report on welfare by the New Jersey State Legislature that condemned the "amoral
existence of many [welfare] recipients" who maintained "illicit relationships
with men of shadowy existence" and "beget illegitimate child after child
without apparent remorse or guilt."
the face of this hellish portrait, the left did what it does best: conducted new
research. In the 1980s, the Harvard economists David Ellwood and Mary Jo Bane
-- the first of whom would design President Clinton's ill-fated welfare reform
plan, the second of whom would resign from her position at the Department of Health
and Human Services when Clinton signed the Republicans' far more punitive version
two years later -- conducted a series of studies to assess the charges. All of
them showed that the criticisms were overblown or outright false. Did welfare
cause out-of-wedlock births? No, welfare played at most a bit part in the process
of changing family structure. What about the tales of lifelong dependence? Mainly
trumped up. Most families were on welfare for short periods of time, though the
long-term beneficiaries made up a considerable portion of the rolls at any point.
Had welfare made poverty worse? Hardly. The problem was not that the benefits
created poverty; it was that they were so low and spottily distributed that they
lifted few people out of poverty.
showing that welfare's critics were playing fast and loose with the facts was
innovative, rigorous, and widely cited. It was also largely beside the point.
For all the social-science trappings of the assault on welfare, the critics were
not carefully sifting through the evidence. They were telling a story -- one much
more straightforward and compelling than the complex rebuttals that followed.
What the left was lacking wasn't supportive data. It was an equally powerful portrayal
of the less advantaged and society's obligations to them.
was one group of welfare watchers that found the story-driven character of the
welfare debate vastly more congenial than the mind-numbing probing of data: American
reporters. Journalists were not attracted to welfare because they shared the right's
animus toward it. They were merely looking for powerful stories -- and stories
about welfare, crime, and drugs were certainly powerful.
journalistic gold rush consisted of two distinct migrations -- the first small
and painfully self-conscious of its effects on those it chronicled; the second
huge and blithely unaware. The first subgroup also constituted a true genre: the
journalist in the ghetto. Its specialty was gritty narratives of inner-city peril
and pluck that allowed well-off, well-educated readers to slum vicariously and
well-off, well-educated reviewers to effuse with words like "unflinching,"
"heartfelt," and "raw." With roots in Upton Sinclair and Michael
Harrington, and exemplified by the work of Jonathan Kozol (and, more recently,
the fine reportage of Adrian Nicole LeBlanc and Katherine Boo), this vein dripped
sympathy for its subjects. The problem was that in its single-minded focus on
impoverished minorities and its general eschewal of moral judgment and policy
context, it often ended up reinforcing as many stereotypes as it dismissed.
the journalist in the ghetto was only a bit player in the media feeding frenzy
that descended on urban America in the 1980s -- and like many of the stories that
the genre produced, it was hardly a representative subculture. The more powerful
assault came from television reporters, and this onslaught had no greater motive
than the pursuit of ratings. During the 1980s, journalistic conventions were changing,
as deregulation, competition for audience share, and flashy cable upstarts pushed
local news toward shock-provoking, "reality"-style reporting. For local
network affiliates battling for market dominance, "If it bleeds, it leads"
became the unspoken mantra. And though welfare did not bleed, its recipients sadly
did. The stories of drive-by shootings and drug violence that jammed the headlines
and local news seemed a daily reminder of the hopelessness of urban America, the
abject failure of government, the perverse effects of assistance.
were also a daily reminder to middle America that welfare was a program for others.
Most Americans, after all, do not receive welfare directly, nor do they come into
regular contact with people they know receive it. Their images of the program
are filtered to them through shared understandings, informal conversations, and
especially media portrayals. And those portrayals are grossly distorted. In 1999,
the political scientist Martin Gilens, in Why Americans Hate Welfare, found that
the biggest distortions concern race: African Americans dominate media images
of poverty. Making up roughly one-third of the poor, blacks constituted almost
70 percent of the pictures of the poor in news stories in the years before welfare
reform, and in stories about the "underclass" they constituted 100 percent.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Gilens found that what best explained white Americans'
views of welfare was not their income or ideology. It was their assumptions about
blacks. When asked to rate their willingness to cut welfare on a 100-point scale,
whites who most agreed with the statement "blacks are lazy" were fully
40 points more favorable toward cuts than those who least agreed. Millions of
Americans otherwise sympathetic to social programs saw black when they thought
of welfare -- and red when they thought of inner-city blacks living high on the
Jason DeParle is a journalist
-- one of the nation's best. And he is clearly comfortable with the story-telling
methods of the craft. "Perhaps no three people can fully tell the story of
9 million," DeParle says up front of Angie, Jewell, Opal, and the millions
who have left the welfare rolls -- an admission more notable for the "perhaps"
than for the incontrovertible fact that follows it. But no matter: DeParle largely
ignores his own warning. Every twist and turn of welfare, every theory about the
causes and consequences of dependence, every gloss -- liberal or conservative
-- put on welfare reform, DeParle dutifully digs out of the lives of the three
women whom he follows. As the book rolls on, the cumulative effect is oddly desensitizing.
We are inundated with images, pressed again and again into anger or despair, but
the scenes and emotions add up to less and less. The book ends finally not with
a verdict on reform but with a poem written by Angie, which itself closes with
a series of unanswered questions. It is a fitting conclusion to an inconclusive
The problem is, by challenging and
informing us through the singular stories of three troubled women, DeParle brings
us little closer to the answers we need. What we do not find out is what all this
means for the American dream.
closest that DeParle comes to a big argument is his insistence that, in his story
of welfare, welfare really is not the story. "Paradoxically," he writes,
"the closer I got to the welfare story, the less central welfare appeared."
It is never exactly clear what DeParle means by this. That welfare recipients
never survived on welfare alone? Certainly, few who received welfare could get
by, or did get by, without supplementing their income. Most beneficiaries worked
before welfare reform; they simply worked in the informal economy where their
labor and their earnings were hidden. But DeParle's point seems more fundamental.
As the book's title implies, he wants to show that the biographies of Angie, Jewell,
and Opal cast light on something larger and deeper: the realities of the "American
In the opening to the book,
DeParle waxes eloquent about the final Senate debate over welfare reform:
senators were talking about welfare the way people talk of it at dinner tables,
in terms so ideological as to be virtually religious. They were talking of how
their parents and grandparents had made it. (Or hadn't. Or couldn't.) They were
talking of how their communities would care for the poor. (Or didn't. Or wouldn't.)
At times, it seemed that the very idea of America was on trial. We live in a country
rich beyond measure, yet one with unconscionable ghettos. We live in a country
where everyone can make it; yet generation after generation, some families don't.
To argue about welfare is to argue about why. I'll be pleased if this story challenges,
and informs, the assumptions on both sides as much as it has challenged my own.
"challenge" and "inform" are worthy goals. The problem is,
by challenging and informing us through the singular stories of three troubled
women, DeParle brings us little closer to the answers we need. We find out how
conflicted the lives of the inner-city poor are, how resilient these women and
their children have to be to deal with the forces pushing them to and fro, how
the debate over whether the poor are victims of the system or architects of their
own fate misses the mix of fortune and failure that defines most of their lives.
We even learn how pleasurable it is to smoke crack. What we do not find out is
what all this means for the American dream.
writes as if the problem of poverty amid plenty were a mystery. But among students
of social policy, there is actually little dispute about why so many more people
are poor in the United States than in other nations. The answer is simple: our
government does much less to lift people out of poverty. A striking finding of
the growing body of cross-national statistics on poverty and inequality is that
the United States really does not stand out that much on either measure when government
taxes and spending are removed from the picture. Put another way, if all the governments
of rich democracies suddenly agreed to do nothing to redistribute income, American
levels of poverty and inequality would be only modestly higher than the levels
found in comparably affluent countries. The reason why American levels of poverty
and inequality are in fact much, much higher is that our poverty-reduction efforts
are singularly parsimonious and ineffective.
comparative reflections may seem beyond the scope of a book on the American welfare
system. But DeParle has promised to illuminate the wider vistas of his story.
And he does make a heroic attempt to review the growing body of studies evaluating
welfare reform. Yet the answers that these studies provide about the millions
who left the rolls are not answers to the larger question about opportunity that
DeParle poses. It may once have sufficed to treat welfare and poverty as largely
synonymous, though even at its peak welfare failed to reach nearly half of poor
families. With the massive drop in the rolls, however, focusing just on those
who receive welfare or leave it behind misses more and more of the lived experience
of low-income Americans. What about the millions who face hardship but do not
ever consider entering a welfare office -- who, work or no work, get by largely
on their own? Are the gates of opportunity opening for them?
suggests that they are. The scholarship on social mobility is rife with controversy,
but there is little disagreement about the basic picture: most lower-income Americans
remain in the bottom half of the income ladder for their entire adult lives; most
higher-income Americans remain in the top half for their entire adult lives; the
intergenerational transmission of poverty and wealth is quite high; and upward
mobility has, if anything, grown slightly more elusive. There is also no dispute
that inequality has increased, health insurance and other benefits have declined,
and the job market has grown more uncertain. The massive exodus from the welfare
rolls in the late-1990s boom and their failure to rise again in the recent downturn
shows that those who relied on welfare are surprisingly capable of getting by
without it. But the verdict on welfare reform is by no means the verdict on the
American dream, and by treating the two as the same DeParle leaves out a huge
range of considerations that would need to be grappled with to begin to cast judgment
on the latter.
There is another contradiction
at the heart of DeParle's account, and it has nothing to do with the individual
stories that he tells. He has written a book designed to show that welfare is
less important than we believe. Yet the whole book revolves around the genesis
and the passage of the 1996 welfare reform bill -- in a word, around welfare.
The contradiction is understandable. DeParle
was the most prominent, and the most gifted, reporter on the welfare beat in the
1990s, when the big battles were being fought. And his experience shows: DeParle
works mightily to make his biographies of Angie, Jewell, and Opal carry the book,
but the narrative really crackles when he turns to Washington politics. No one
else has captured so vividly or so concisely the confusing seesaw character of
the struggle -- Clinton's entry into the debate, his failure to move quickly,
his eventual proposal released just months before the 1994 midterm elections,
and then the huge rightward shift that followed and to which Clinton eventually
Although DeParle is sympathetic
to Clinton's embrace of welfare reform in 1992, his portrait of Clinton (whom
he interviewed at length for the book) is more devastating than any right-wing
hatchet job could be. By pushing welfare reform to the ten-yard line and then
egregiously fumbling the ball, Clinton opened the door not just to the Republican
congressional takeover, DeParle suggests, but also to a much more draconian law
that had much less chance of providing the support needed to move welfare recipients
permanently into the workforce.
missing from this saga of missteps and missed chances is one of its more important
players: Jason DeParle. When Clinton took office, the young journalist was not
so different from the gaggle of policy wonks who rushed to be part of what DeParle
wonderfully dubs "a poverty nerd's Shangri-la." Occasionally, DeParle
does slip into first-person recounting of his role as a reporter. Still, reading
his account one would never suspect how central that role was. Between Clinton's
inauguration in January 1993 and the Republican takeover in November 1994, DeParle
wrote more than one hundred stories for the Times. And for the most part his stories
were not positive. DeParle's specialty was the insider leak about thorny policy
details -- a story type made considerably more attractive by the fact that the
Clinton administration leaked with abandon. Between January and March of 1994,
he unleashed a series of bombshells -- "Change in Welfare Is Likely to Need
Big Jobs Program," "Welfare Plan May Require New Taxes," "Clinton
Plan Sees Welfare Costing $6 Billion a Year" -- that cemented his reputation
as the welfare reporter closest to the inside.
stories were good for his reputation. They were not nearly so good for the efforts
of David Ellwood and others to try to craft a compromise. Many of the ideas that
DeParle publicized were not meant to reach the light of day. They were options,
waiting, like everything else, for Clinton's final word. But once they were out,
the administration was forced either to deny them and look untruthful or to endorse
them and make someone, or some group, very angry. DeParle reports that when a
tax on gambling was proposed as a financing idea, "Senator Harry Reid (Democrat
of, hmmm, Nevada) pledged, 'I will become the most negative, the most irresponsible,
the most obnoxious person of anyone in the Senate.'" What he neglects to
mention is that the reporter who broke the story of the gambling-tax idea was
him. According to DeParle, the ongoing "spectacle" of pre-emptive stands
against leaked ideas "didn't just delay the plan. It sealed its doom."
If he is right, then it can be fairly said that DeParle played his own small part
in sealing the plan's doom, too.
the effect of DeParle's reporting, he is certainly right about one feature of
Clinton's now-forgotten plan: it was light-years apart from what Republicans proposed
and what Clinton signed. Indeed, DeParle's most telling reportage traces not the
transformation in the lives of Angie, Jewell, and Opal, but the transformation
in Democrats' positions. As the political scientist R. Kent Weaver argues in his
richly detailed book Ending Welfare as We Know It, the shift was less a true Democratic
conversion than a strategic response to a fluctuating political situation. Clinton's
pledge to end welfare got the ball rolling in 1992. But the process was further
propelled by Clinton's opportunistic "triangulation" between an increasingly
conservative Republican leadership and his liberal party base in Congress.
ideological shift is easy to forget today, when the modal Democratic stance on
welfare is basically to let the 1996 law continue as is. But DeParle reminds us
just how big it was. In the fall of 1994, as Republicans gained ground by pillorying
welfare, Democratic Representative Bob Matsui was busy excoriating Ellwood for
an unnecessarily harsh bill -- even though it phased in work requirements and
created public jobs of last resort. By the time Gingrich and his troops rolled
into town, writes DeParle, "there were literally no Democratic alternatives.
There were only competing Republican visions of what ending welfare would mean."
Today, these Republican visions are heralded
for moving millions of families off the rolls and thus freeing up billions in
federal and state dollars for child care and job placement. But the most appropriate
way to judge the intentions of welfare reform's architects is on the basis of
what they thought they were doing; and like their opponents, few of Gingrich's
revolutionaries predicted the massive and largely painless drop in the rolls that
ended up occurring. What they thought would happen is that the states, having
been handed a fixed pot of money (so-called block grants) and strict new federal
rules, would have to figure out how to implement the tough requirements mandated
by the law within the confines of still-large caseloads.
everyone in 1996 expected the clash of these aims to result in significant pain
for many families; they just differed on how worthwhile that pain would be. They
also differed on how important it was to provide supports to women and kids who
leave welfare -- millions of whom, even when the states were awash with money,
found themselves without health insurance or child care when they exited the rolls.
Clinton's original vision of welfare reform had two parts: "two years and
you're off" and "make work pay." The post-1994 progress of reform
saw the embrace of ever-stricter versions of the first goal and increasing silence
about the second.
In tracing the mutation
of Clinton's ambiguous pledge to "end welfare as we know it" into a
specific system of block grants, time limits, caps, and cutoffs, DeParle is an
acute reporter. But while accurately capturing the shift, he fails to ask the
question that is perhaps most relevant to future developments: was the bill that
ultimately passed what the American people wanted? DeParle rarely mentions voters
or the public, and he cites scarcely a single survey. As a result, his book inadvertently
reinforces the same easy verdict that most have drawn out of the welfare reform
experience -- that Americans are, by and large, hostile to government attempts
to address social problems and simply don't care about poverty, inequality, or
But this is the wrong conclusion.
In all of the vast research on public views about social policy, the one finding
that comes out clearly is that welfare is sui generis. Americans express high
support for nearly every public social program and social policy goal -- except
welfare. Even in abstract terms, large majorities of the public say that government
should help people who have bad luck or who cannot help themselves. During the
debate over welfare reform, Clinton was convinced that spending more on welfare
was the fastest road to political ruin. But if so, the barrier he faced was not
the public: polls throughout the debate showed that Americans expected and were
willing to spend more to help move welfare recipients into the workforce.
be sure, surveys can overstate public support. But in this case there is also
ample historical evidence that Americans are willing to tolerate huge amounts
of redistribution when the targets of aid are considered morally deserving and
when programs limit the potential for abuse. Medicaid, the health program for
the poor, grew from 1.4 percent of the federal budget in 1980 to more than 6 percent
in 1994. It now pays for one in three hospital births, covers one-fifth of all
children, and finances almost half of nursing home care. The Earned Income Tax
Credit ballooned from a billion-dollar-a-year program in 1975 into the nation's
largest program for the poor. In 2003, thanks to the huge expansion championed
by Clinton a decade earlier, the annual credit averaged nearly $1,800 for each
of the almost 20 million working-poor families that claimed it.
today, as the party in power substitutes economic happy talk for economic justice,
there is little evidence that most Americans are buying what it's selling. Our
nation's leadership has moved sharply to the right, jamming through two huge tax
cuts skewed toward the rich; but when it comes to social policy, most Americans
are probably pretty much where they were a decade ago. They are skeptical of government,
and critical of those who fail to take responsibility for their own lives, but
they broadly support efforts to help anyone with minimal gumption to achieve the
The lesson of the great welfare
debate is not that Americans have no stomach for fighting poverty and insecurity.
The lesson is that welfare was a terrible program shrouded in ugly associations
and almost perfectly designed to push every public hot button -- and Americans
were willing to accept almost anything in its place. No one should be sanguine
about the prospects for a renewed discussion of the dark shadows that still obscure
the American dream for countless citizens. But the main obstacle to such a discussion
is not the American people; it is the folks who are governing them.