Dream On

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

By Jason DeParle • Viking • PAGES • $25.95

Remarkably little has been heard about the poor from the Bush administration during the past four years. The administration has focused more on rewarding its base -- "the haves and the have-mores" -- than on demonstrating that there was real substance behind the president's "compassionate conservatism." But that's only half the explanation for the inattention to poverty. The other half is that Republicans -- and many Democrats -- believe that the welfare-reform legislation passed by Congress and signed by Bill Clinton in 1996 settled the big public-policy questions regarding the poor. That legislation promised to end welfare as we knew it, and, to a considerable extent, it has.

Jason DeParle enjoyed a front-row seat as the public drama of welfare reform unfolded. As the national poverty reporter for The New York Times, he had access to the players in Washington who were debating welfare policy, from Clinton himself and the leading Republican politicians on down to the key advisers in the Clinton administration, Bruce Reed and David Ellwood, as well as Charles Murray and other key conservative policy intellectuals.

DeParle also had a backstage pass to welfare reform's private drama: He followed three women and their children, longtime welfare recipients, who were textbook studies of the "tangle of pathology" of inner-city life. Moving from Chicago to Milwaukee for Wisconsin's higher welfare benefits and lower rents, they seemed to embody the ethos that conservatives interpreted as a culture of dependency. Little did Angie, Opal, and Jewell know at the time, but they would soon be swept up in one of the most remarkable domestic-policy shifts since the New Deal: the replacement of welfare with workfare. Many books try to link the personal to the political, combining statistics with case studies or viewing history through the experience of particular figures, both notable and anonymous. DeParle connects the personal and political by documenting both the public and private dramas of welfare reform with a keen eye and an even more remarkable pen.

Although many pundits would credit the workfare revolution to conservative think tanks and their representatives such as Murray, perhaps the real ghost in the machine was the intersection of demography and economics. When Congress created Aid to Dependent Children in 1934, it intended the cash benefits to help white widows, specifically to enable them to remain at home as caregivers for their children. Decades later, when nonmarital childbearing rates rose, those cash benefits for single unmarried mothers became the quintessential welfare program of the late 20th century.

Meanwhile, the labor force was changing. The proportion of women in paid employment doubled between World War II and 1990, as married couples increasingly required two incomes to maintain a reasonable standard of living. Looking back, it is no wonder why workfare replaced welfare: The social norms regarding work had so radically shifted that politicians and the public were not going to continue paying poor women to stay home with their children when so many other women could not afford to do that themselves.

DeParle knows his history. He puts welfare in historical context and also takes us back to Mississippi to visit some of the progenitors of the three women who are the main focus of his book, skillfully showing us that the roots of ghetto culture lay in the cotton fields of the South. The social organization of family and economic life there -- along with the racist structures of opportunity -- were eerily similar to the lifestyles and obstacles faced by the women in Chicago and Milwaukee. DeParle's history lesson goes a long way toward debunking arguments that welfare created the culture of urban poverty.

Welfare reform itself helps debunk these myths as well. What stands out from the narratives of Angie, Jewell, and Opal is how little welfare and its regulations figured in their life stories. They had all worked to varying degrees when they were on the dole. It is true that welfare reform increased their work hours dramatically and their incomes modestly. But it didn't solve the rest of their problems: substandard educations, drugs, abusive boyfriends, children with fathers in jail, and, last but not least, a lack of decent-paying jobs with the potential for upward mobility.

As well-written and comprehensive as American Dream is, though, it only whetted my appetite for more. I would like to hear DeParle tell the whole story all over again, this time following the fathers -- the missing men who haunt this book like eerie specters and who seem to be the key to understanding the dynamics of inner-city life pre– and post–welfare reform. DeParle seems to acknowledge as much in the final chapter, claiming, "The more time I spent at Angie's [one of the relative success stories of the book], the more it felt like everything was about Greg [her children's father, who had been put away for murder]. He had been gone for eight years, but his absence had left a hole that nothing had been able to fill -- not welfare, not work, and certainly not the parade of men filing through Angie's life." In August, DeParle published an article in The New York Times Magazine about a man who, after being released from prison, has rejoined Jewell, one of the women featured in the book, and is raising their son. But here DeParle is showing us the exception rather than the rule; he has yet to give us the full picture of the fathers' world.

Finally, I craved more information about what's happened since 1999 (the year when the main body of this book's narrative leaves off). In an epilogue, DeParle cites some evidence that during the recession of 2001, welfare caseloads continued to fall and the poor fared relatively better than in other downturns. But more recent data indicating an increase in poverty should prompt a closer re-examination of the fate of women who have left welfare.

I'd also like to find out what's happening to the 10 children DeParle describes -- from little Myerra (born to Opal with crack in her blood) to the academically talented but frustrated Von to Kesha (Angie's daughter who, we learn on the final page, has had her first child at 17 but works full time and avoids welfare altogether).

This next generation is the real test of welfare reform. The advocates of reform argued that the replacement of welfare with work would bring about a sea change in the daily rhythms and norms of inner-city life. Let's hope that DeParle, or someone with his skill, will be around to keep track of the young as their own stories unfold. Unfortunately, from what DeParle himself tells us about the Milwaukee families and the economic realities they face, I'm afraid the sequel will not turn out for the best.

Dalton Conley is a professor of sociology and public policy at New York University. His latest book is The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why.