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!”