Book Review -

American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare
By Jason DeParle
Review by Melissa Pardue

Week of October 24-31, 2004

The 1996 welfare reform legislation remains one of history's most dramatic examples of a successful social policy reform. As the presidential and vice-presidential candidates campaign on the issue of "Two Americas," there is perhaps no more appropriate time than the present to re-examine what made welfare reform such a success, how our national thinking on the issue has evolved, and what direction we should continue to take from now on.

In his book American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare, Jason DeParle of the New York Times takes his readers on a dramatic and moving journey of the reform told through two vastly different stories. He expertly weaves together the political story of welfare reform - told through the people, events, and negotiations in Washington that made it possible - with the human story of the reform - told through three amazing women who experienced the front lines of the welfare system during its dramatic change. Through both stories, readers are given priceless insight into one of the most fundamental social changes in a generation.

DeParle opens his account with the 1992 presidential campaign of then-Governor Bill Clinton. What began as a line in a speech, "put an end to welfare as we know it," soon became so much more. Along came a Republican Congress in 1994, with Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich leading the charge, to hold President Clinton to that campaign promise. The arduous task of "ending welfare" was soon underway, although not without dire warnings and doomsday predictions from a large and vocal opposition.

In American Dream, we are introduced to many of welfare reform's architects and key players. Familiar names like Tommy Thompson, Jason Turner, David Ellwood, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Charles Murray, Ron Haskins, and Robert Rector remind us that the essence of the reform was, in many ways, the people involved. DeParle reveals some of the harsh realties that occurred throughout the process, including bitter disputes, two vetoed bills, partisan maneuvering, and many reluctant politicians.

However, DeParle reminds us that while Washington haggled and fought over the specifics in the legislation, many actually lived it. Truly the model for "welfare-to-work," the state of Wisconsin had already begun in the early 1990's to experiment with its welfare system. Milwaukee, with its generous welfare benefits and affordable housing opportunities, brought many struggling welfare mothers to its doorstep. Three such women - cousins Angie, Jewell, and Opal - become DeParle's focus as they are transplanted from the dangerous neighborhoods of Chicago to the new ghettos of Milwaukee. Their story, however, began generations earlier amid the world of sharecropping on a Mississippi plantation.

Angie and Jewell were some of the first to "tumble off the rolls" as Milwaukee implemented its "Pay for Performance" program (the precursor to the infamous W-2 program). The results surprised everyone, including its architects - the welfare rolls in Milwaukee fell by 66 percent over the two-year period leading up to W-2, ending welfare for 22,000 families from the welfare rolls. Requiring welfare recipients to work, well… worked.

What happened in Wisconsin followed elsewhere around the country. States that implemented the most aggressive reforms saw the biggest results, but no state was left untouched. Nationwide, "three million families left the rolls - more than 9 million people." As DeParle notes, "the economy helped… but previous booms hadn't cut the rolls…The auspicious economics surround the story like good weather - necessary, perhaps, for cutting the rolls, but not sufficient."

However dramatic the success of welfare reform, DeParle's story is a poignant reminder that, in many ways, it is a reform that remains incomplete. This reality is tragically told through Opal's story. While cousins Angie and Jewell thrive in jobs and relationships, Opal is trapped in addiction. Her story is evidence that our job is not yet finished. The reauthorization of welfare reform - originally due in 2002, but continuously extended - must engage women like Opal, who remain trapped in a system designed to be merely a safety net.

DeParle's account of this radical and tumultuous journey to reform a nation's welfare system is one of heartbreak, courage, conviction, and surprise. American Dream is more than a story of poverty in America. It serves as a reminder of the challenge we face as a nation in attempting to legislate compassion for the poor. As DeParle writes, "The ultimate goal isn't a safety net, but a reduced need for one - to give families like Angie's a chance at real upward mobility. [But] elevators are harder to design than safety nets...."

Melissa G. Pardue is a social welfare policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation.







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