The face of welfare reform
By Emily Bazelon
Special to The Times
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
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
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."
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
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
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.
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.
broadly, the government hasn't helped poor mothers solve other problems. DeParle
notes that while there's a troubling lack of research in this area, a few work
programs have shown the benefit of getting younger children into formal day care.
But for many kids, and for the older siblings who must care for them, there's
no such relief in sight. When Jobe took a post office job in 1995, she left her
11-year-old daughter in charge of three brothers, ages 9, 6 and 2. Throughout
their school years, her kids had sky-high absence rates. "As steady workers
with above-average earnings," DeParle writes, Jobe and Reed "were unusual
successes." But by book's end, Jobe's teenage daughter has two kids, one
son is repeating ninth grade and another has dropped out. For the next generation,
success looks a lot like missed opportunity.
DeParle asks Jobe what would make her family's life better, she answers, "If
my man woulda come home!" Conservatives who rant against "the 'real'
welfare problem of 'illegitimacy' " have a point, however clumsily they express
it. Neither Jobe nor her teenage daughter has ever been to a wedding. Yet no state
has used welfare savings to launch a serious effort to reduce the rate of births
to single mothers.
Sept. 11, the welfare debate that ate up so much '90s air time has largely moved
off screen. But soon, Congress and the president will have to decide on what terms
to extend the 1996 law. "American Dream" is the perfect primer for that
debate. It's also a call for helping families like the Jobes succeed for real.