False Promises

False Promises

In American Dream, his masterful new book about welfare reform, Jason DeParle brings together two groups of people who rarely seem to meet: welfare policy-makers and welfare recipients.


In American Dream, his masterful new book about welfare reform, Jason DeParle brings together two groups of people who rarely seem to meet: welfare policy-makers and welfare recipients. The result is every bit the exhaustive and authoritative account we might expect from a New York Times reporter whose welfare coverage during the Clinton years twice made him a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. What’s startling is the gripping read DeParle provides along the way–an alchemy wrought by the fusion of his encyclopedic knowledge with his mischievous prose. The story of welfare reform turns out to be suspenseful, emotionally rich, rife with dramatic reversals and packed with enough ironies to keep Don DeLillo busy for several years. Who knew?

DeParle’s method is similar to Nicholas Lemann’s in his classic study of African-American migration, The Promised Land (a book DeParle draws on, along with Carol Stack’s All Our Kin, Mickey Kaus’s The End of Equality and many others). He follows both the lives of ordinary people and the process of Washington decisionmaking to the points where they intersect. While his long-term observation of poor families is reminiscent of Adrian Nicole Leblanc’s Random Family, his equally close attention to the actions and motivations of policy-makers provides a welcome layer of analysis.

The ordinary people in American Dream are Angie Jobe, Jewell Reed and Opal Caples, three African-American single mothers and longtime welfare recipients, related by blood or marriage, who moved from Chicago to Milwaukee in 1991 to avail themselves of Wisconsin’s generous welfare payouts. DeParle spent time with these women and their children over the years when the Clinton welfare laws were taking effect and Wisconsin was transformed by Tommy Thompson, its ambitious (and, as portrayed here, ferociously self-interested) governor, from a haven of handouts to the epicenter of rollbacks. DeParle meticulously traces the women’s histories, which follow similar, and typical, trajectories. Descended from sharecroppers, raised in the 1960s and ’70s by hardworking single mothers in failing Chicago neighborhoods, they succumbed to the pressures of their environment: truncated education, early pregnancy and drugs–the fathers of Angie and Jewell’s children, both drug dealers, are serving long sentences, and Opal became addicted to crack in her 20s. All three worked intermittently while on welfare, but had little incentive to make coherent plans. Angie, the most enterprising of the bunch, was actually a postal employee while on the rolls. “Angie usually says her postal career ended with a layoff, a version she half believes. In truth, she quit,” writes DeParle, whose compassion for his subjects never leads him to become their apologist. After summarizing Angie’s complaints about the job, he concludes: “She also quit because she could: she had a welfare check…. Angie was still stuck, and the welfare system let her stay that way.”

Meanwhile, in Washington, the welfare reform bill was making a lurching, picaresque journey from a slogan without a policy (Clinton’s campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it” was little more than a line dreamed up by his campaign speechwriter) to a cataclysm in social policy. Candidate Clinton had originally described his reform plan as a federally run program to provide the poor with training, education and community-service jobs, but its essential vagueness allowed both conservatives and liberals to embrace it. After taking office, Clinton inexplicably lost interest in welfare reform, leaving a vacuum that was quickly filled by Republicans eager to reclaim an issue they felt he’d stolen from them. In the hands of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a more stringent bill than anything Clinton had fathomed began to take shape. “Gingrich set the old arguments on their head,” DeParle writes. “While Reagan attacked poor people for abusing the programs, Gingrich attacked programs for abusing the poor…he reminded the public that poor children were suffering and said welfare was to blame…. When I noted the change in tactics, Gingrich responded with the smile of a man well-pleased with his cleverness. ‘Congratulations!’ he said. ‘You cracked the code!’ The rhetoric did more than soften the message. It created a logic for deeper cuts: The less we spend, the more we care!”

By the time Clinton finally signed a welfare bill, in 1996, it had been transformed into a program run at the discretion of the states with fixed federal funding and “hard” time limits of five years. Its architects cast themselves as emancipators of the poor, while its detractors, led by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, warned that children would be “sleeping on grates.” DeParle then shifts his narrative back to his subjects in Wisconsin, where welfare czar-to-be Jason Turner was concocting his own brand of reform, requiring that applicants attend several weeks of motivation class and then show up for a workfare job, or else lose their benefits.

Watching the impact of Turner’s policies on Angie and Jewell does a lot to explain the staggering national drop in welfare rolls that followed. Angie received one of Turner’s work notices and found a job two weeks later in a large nursing home, commencing what might loosely be called her career in caring for the elderly. Over the next many years, she has worked long hours, double shifts, piggybacked more than one job into her day and has never received another welfare check. Jewell signed up for a course to become a nursing aide and also soon found a job. Having moved quickly off the rolls and into work, Angie and Jewell exemplify welfare reform’s statistical success–in Milwaukee, the rolls dropped 66 percent in two years, before the transition to Turner’s program was even complete. But the quality of Angie and Jewell’s lives changed very little: Though they were slightly better off financially–mostly because of the earned-income tax credit passed by Clinton–their low-wage jobs keep them teetering near the poverty line. Both women struggle to keep the lights on and food on the table. Angie’s endless workdays and double shifts left her with much less time for her children, whose lives to date suggest a future little different from her own. Her oldest child, Kesha, got pregnant at 16. A son, Redd, dropped out of school in ninth grade and was contemplating becoming a drug dealer.

Opal, who had been addicted to crack for many years by 1996, presented a much tougher case than Angie or Jewell. Turner’s plan called for an ambitious system of aid for families like Opal’s who lingered on the rolls: While still requiring that everyone work, it would create thousands of community-service jobs and provide child- and healthcare. Five agencies administered Wisconsin Works, or W-2, in Milwaukee, each handling different city districts. As described by DeParle, their performance was scandalous; for all their tough talk about work requirements, they did precious little to train or employ clients. What they mostly did was send them welfare checks. Nonsensical as this might seem, there was a simple explanation: money. Not having expected the rolls to plummet as they did, Wisconsin had budgeted for more than double the number of cases than actually existed by the time W-2 was up and running. Already awash in surplus funds they’d done nothing to earn, the agencies charged with administering W-2 had little incentive to do the hard work of easing troubled families off the rolls and into independence. In other words, cash handouts stymied the welfare-fixers into idleness.

But the corruption went deeper than inaction and neglect: Because there were caps imposed on the profits these contractors were allowed to make, they indulged in orgies of gratuitous spending. DeParle devotes a portion of his book to Maximus, Inc., a for-profit corporation that traded on the New York Stock Exchange and had a particular knack for making headlines and grabbing high-profile contracts. And no wonder–the company spent $1.1 million on a marketing campaign while a mere 8 percent of its Milwaukee clients were working. DeParle’s devastating exposé of the nonsense and weirdness at Maximus gives Joseph Heller a run for his money. Opal’s fate exposes the human toll exacted by the incompetence and greed of corporations that rode the gravy train of welfare reform: Pregnant and living in a crack house, she enjoyed an uninterrupted stream of welfare checks that continued even after a Maximus worker paid a visit to her “residence.” With no financial incentive to control her habit, she wound up losing everything: her children, family ties and finally even her welfare check. When DeParle last heard from her, she was homeless.

What emerges from this volume is a nuanced portrait of welfare reform. The doomsayers, mercifully, were wrong–the falling rolls, which far outpaced predictions, never ushered in widespread crisis or chaos. Strong, able women like Angie and Jewell are less likely to depend on the government for their families’ livelihoods, and Angie, particularly, takes pride and pleasure in her work. But minimum-wage labor offers little in terms of comfort or stability, so the “freedom” touted by workfare’s proponents would seem to have been mostly projection. Nor does herding people off the dole and into working poverty solve the many social problems–drugs, crime, single parenthood–that make it hard for children born to poor families to fare much better than their parents. For those with deeper problems, like Opal, the promise of rehabilitation and mainstreaming has largely failed to materialize–in part because of the cynicism and bureaucratic inertia of welfare-to-work organizations (despite some passionate casework, which DeParle describes) but also because transforming a troubled life like Opal’s is unbelievably hard.

And so the story of welfare reform is ultimately subsumed by a more amorphous tale of poverty and income disparity–problems that resist campaign sloganeering or political quick fixes. How triumphant can we feel about having drastically shrunk the welfare rolls when the Bush tax cuts have shamelessly enriched the small group of wealthiest Americans? As a nation, we continue to act as though the rich were deserving of government help but not the poor, and contrary to prevailing conservative opinion, this is a message the poor have internalized. “What really stands out about Angie and Jewell is how little they felt they were owed,” DeParle writes. “When welfare was there for the taking, they got on the bus and took it; when it wasn’t, they made other plans. 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.

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