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The face of welfare reform

Style & Culture | BOOK REVIEW

American Dream Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare Jason DeParle Viking: 422 pp., $25.95

September 17, 2004|Emily Bazelon | Special to The Times

Most analyses of welfare reform fall into two camps. The dominant one stresses the huge drop in the number of families on welfare -- from 5 million to 2 million since 1996 -- and proclaims the changes enacted by Congress that year a triumph. The counter-view is that the declining rolls mask suffering that can be measured by the small uptick in families living below the poverty line in the latest census (after a period of great decline in the late '90s) and increased reliance on food banks and homeless shelters. The pro-reform camp points to the large number of former recipients who found jobs; the second notes that they're still poor and have lost their safety net.

In short, both camps often read the evidence selectively. Jason DeParle's new book, "American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare," offers a powerful, bracing antidote. A reporter who has long covered poverty for the New York Times, DeParle tracks in masterful detail the effects of the 1996 legislation on three Milwaukee families, as well as the law's journey from Capitol Hill and the White House to the state offices and streets of Wisconsin. He identifies himself as a skeptic about the law's merits at the outset, but he weaves in stories and statistics that don't support his preconceptions. If it's hard to say at the end whether welfare reform can be judged a success, that's because he refuses to be one-sided.

"American Dream" follows three single mothers, Angie Jobe, Jewell Reed and Opal Caples, each of whom had cashed welfare checks for years. What changed when Congress and President Clinton set a five-year lifetime limit on benefits, required more women to work and then gave the states the whole welfare machine to overhaul? Less than you might expect. Jobe says the law "was no landmark to her." As she and Reed saw things, "if the money was there, they were happy to take it; if not, they would make other plans."

Their plans included work -- though that was true before welfare reform. (Caples had a job at times too, until she fell apart because of a crack addiction, the book's darkest thread.) Seven years ago, sociologist Kathryn Edin found that almost all of the 400 welfare recipients she studied relied on some combination of off-the-books work and gifts from family and boyfriends to get by. Basic math explains why. Jobe got $8,400 a year from welfare before her checks were cut off (in addition to $4,800 in food stamps, which she continued to collect). With four kids to raise and the father of three of them in prison for the long haul, she also needed to work.

If welfare reform didn't introduce employment to DeParle's subjects, it gave them a new reason not to quit. When Jobe tried to get back on the rolls in 1998, she was told that she'd have to sit through a self-esteem class and show up for a community service job. The next day, she went back to her job as a nursing home aide, explaining, "They gave me a lot of yada, yada, yada. I said, 'Screw 'em, and found me a job." So did 75% of the women who streamed off welfare in the late 1990s. An additional 20% earned nothing, but little is known about that group, a disturbing information gap.

Still, the self-reliance of the majority refutes what had been a liberal orthodoxy: Women on welfare couldn't work because their lives were too troubled. DeParle vividly illustrates the degree to which that assumption proved false. Jobe and Reed face plenty of "barriers to employment," including bleeding ulcers, depression, a violent boyfriend and the stress of raising a passel of kids alone. Yet day after day they haul themselves onto a bus or into a cantankerous old car to earn $8 or $9 an hour.

But if poor single mothers are helping themselves, is the government doing its part? Apart from the earned income tax credit, which augments low wages by up to $4,000 a year, DeParle makes the case that the answer is no. Most glaringly, he describes corruption and waste in the private companies that won lucrative contracts to take over state welfare bureaucracies. The biggest corporate player, Maximus Inc., gave away golf balls with the company logo. It hired one caseworker who pushed his clients to help him sell drugs and another who told women they'd lose their benefits unless they had sex with him. It didn't help clients find and keep jobs. In 1999, "in the country's most famous work program, only 8 percent of the clients were working," DeParle calculates.

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