American Dream:
Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare

By Jason DeParle
Viking Books, 442 pages, $25.95

You probably missed it in the flood of words thrown back and forth about pre-emptive war, middle-class squeeze, terror and forged memos, but the usually salient issue of welfare reform has been the dog that didn’t bark in the 2004 election. Unlike in 1992, when Bill Clinton established his New Democrat bona fides by promising to “end welfare as we know it,” or four years later when Clinton signed a bill doing just that despite its radical differences from his original plan, or even in 2000 when George W. Bush touted the measure as a plank in his platform of “compassionate conservatism,” the most radical change in public policy of the last 10 years merited scarcely a mention in the fiercely competitive race between Bush and John Kerry.

Perhaps the reason why is that nobody knows quite what to say. Though the welfare reform law expired in 2002, Congress has been deadlocked on a replacement measure and has deferred the issue by repeatedly passing extensions of the original law. The stalled economy of the last several years slowed–but did not reverse–the radical drops in state welfare rolls that led most observers to hail welfare reform as a triumph during the late 1990s, confounding the dire predictions of liberals who had opposed the changes. But it has also become clear that conservative predictions of the “transformational power of work” lifting millions of former aid recipients into self-sufficiency and largely reversing the embedded pathologies of underclass communities were similarly off-base.

At this becalmed moment in the ongoing history of welfare reform, Jason DeParle’s American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare offers a tremendously valuable summary of where we’ve been and where we are now in this evolving area of policy–and gives some insight as to where we should go next. Part history, part biography and part sociology, DeParle’s book not only brings the great debate of national policy down to human scale through the story of three Milwaukee women and their families, it also details how the very human and rarely preplanned actions of activists, officials and advisors–the scheming of welfare rights activists in the 1960s, a Clinton speechwriter’s search for the perfect phrase in late 1991, a game of political chicken between a Wisconsin governor and his legislative rivals a few short years later–can lead to profound changes for millions they will never meet.

The quantitative measures of welfare reform–the drops in aid receipt, changes in work rates and income levels–have been recorded and endlessly debated. But what else was accomplished by the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996? Perhaps the most important change was that the myth of the welfare parasite, assiduously cultivated by Ronald Reagan and other conservatives before and since, was largely destroyed. The country saw millions of single women accept the end of their guaranteed benefits with relative equanimity and jump into the workforce to support their children. As DeParle shows, however, this was in no small part because many of these former aid recipients were already working. For the brash and sardonic Angie Jobe, one of the three women whose story helps frame the book, the monthly welfare check was just one source of income, along with a series of low-wage jobs and occasional assistance from boyfriends, family and others. This crucial finding–all but unreported in much of the ideologically driven literature from both sides in the debate–probably helps explain why the spectacle of all these women entering the workforce failed to provoke the profound positive changes in child development and student achievement that public officials from Bill Clinton to Wisconsin (and later New York City) welfare chief Jason Turner had predicted: The kids had already seen Mom going off to work.

One of DeParle’s accomplishments in this book is how such revelations help illustrate other, better-known truths impacting those attempting the transition from welfare to work: the oft-repeated cycle between employment and idleness; the “barriers,” from a lack of educational attainment to transportation and child care problems and mental health issues, between welfare leavers and sustained, steady work; the essential worthlessness of the old Aid to Families With Dependent Children that led even those who deplored the mid-1990s reforms to concede that change was needed. Over the course of the book, Jobe’s work career is interrupted by car failure (and theft, at one point), recurrent bouts with depression, and–another revelation for attentive policymakers–the receipt of her Earned Income Tax Credit, a windfall worth several thousand dollars that suddenly makes work seem a little less crucial.

He also renders, in heartbreaking fashion, the story of Jobe’s friend Opal, whose addiction to crack cocaine not only lasts through welfare reform and the birth of her six children, but is even abetted by the same welfare program, Wisconsin Works (W2), that brought Turner and the state’s governor, Tommy Thompson, to national prominence. Through most of the book, DeParle admirably holds his own views in abeyance, but his outrage shows through when he describes the astonishing waste, corruption and mismanagement that characterized this widely lauded program. At best, programs like W2 redirect funds that once went to aid checks in order to help low-income workers arrange transportation and address other obstacles to sustained employment. In reality, this was all too rarely the case. In the book, not only does W2 pay for Opal’s crack; its misaligned incentives and lack of oversight furnishes her with a half-dozen caseworkers in just over a year (including a fellow addict). Elsewhere in Maximus, the company managing her case, welfare-to-work executives are lining their pockets, putting family and lovers on the payroll and spending millions in taxpayer money on promotional ephemera from music jingles to golf balls. With nearly everyone–except, of course, those whom the program is intended to serve–benefiting from the myth of W2’s transformational success, corrective investigation is painfully long in coming.

Part of the problem, DeParle implies, is that though welfare reform radically changed the goals of “the system,” it did little to change the culture of the bureaucracy or the processes it used. Thus we see Jobe mistakenly deprived of her food stamps, leaving the more than half dozen children in her home hungry, even as Opal keeps getting her checks because successive caseworkers fail to discover her history of addiction. And Michael Steinborn, a caseworker at Maximus who finally determines to help Opal, spends as much time trying to decipher a needlessly complex and almost comically counterintuitive computer coding system as he does trying to solve the problems of his clients. The primary change needed to really achieve success in the lives of program participants–an ethic on the part of agency workers that participant well-being is the most important goal–never took place. Thus the system continued to enable those, like Opal, who needed a salutary kick in the rear while erroneously imposing penalties on countless individuals who were doing exactly what they had been asked to do.

The pleasure of reading American Dream is in its vividly drawn characters, from Angie, Opal and the ambivalent but heroic caseworker Michael to Tommy Thompson, Bill Clinton and other leading figures of the national welfare-reform movement. And the book serves as a marvelous summation of much of the best literature on welfare to date, from Nicholas Lemann’s The Promised Land to Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here and LynNell Hancock’s more recent work on welfare reform in New York City, Hands to Work. DeParle picks up the themes of all these works–the profoundly important migration over decades from Jim Crow South to the great cities of the north, the struggle of inner-city children to grow up in a severely dysfunctional culture, and how changes in the welfare laws affected both family structures and local job markets–and weaves them into a single extraordinarily compelling narrative.

But what does the book tell us about how to further align public assistance with societal values and bring real improvement to the lives of Americans who, while off the welfare rolls, seem nearly as far from self-sufficiency now than they were in 1995? Ultimately the question is one of values and goals: whether we are truly committed to rewarding work and “playing by the rules,” or content not to subsidize “idleness.” Near the end of the book, DeParle cites a Brookings Institution plan to raise the minimum wage and increase child care and tax credits for work, which its authors estimated would help 20 million families, all led by working adults. At a cost of $26 billion per year, it would account for less than half the revenue lost by the Congressional decision to end the estate tax, which almost entirely benefits multimillionaires. If this is the first you’ve heard of this proposal, you’re not alone.

Absent a real reordering of political realities along these lines, perhaps the answer is a program that does more of what W2 was supposed to do, with bigger carrots–barrier removal, educational and training opportunities, rewards for sustained employment or child academic achievement–as well as sticks. And although liberals will likely blanch at the prospect, DeParle’s account makes it clear that the next step in welfare reform will somehow have to address men and family formation; without a public effort to put single men in low-income communities back to work and create incentives for them to live up to family obligations, there is a sharp limit to what welfare reform can accomplish. The unifying concept here is the social contract itself, so effectively used by President Clinton and others to build support for welfare reform in the first place: Work hard, live right, and we’ll make it worth your while to do so. Through the first decade of welfare reform, progress toward making this grand bargain meaningful has been halting and inconsistent, but sufficiently real to give observers from all points of the political compass hope that this American Dream might yet be realized.