Synopses & Reviews
An acclaimed New York Times
reporter offers the definitive look at the collision between social policy and the gritty reality of post-welfare America.
Bill Clinton vowed to "end welfare as we know it" in his first run for president in 1992. Four years later, Congress translated a catchy slogan into a law that sent nine million women and children streaming from the rolls. Did it work? In his definitive book on this unprecedented upheaval in social policy, New York Times reporter and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist Jason DeParle follows three women in one extended family to a set of surprising answers.
Cutting between the corridors of Washington and the meanest streets of Milwaukee, DeParle tracks the story from the White House to the local crack house. After twelve years on welfare, Angie, a truculent mother of three, finds a job and a 401(k) and a boyfriend who tries to shoot her. Her cousin Jewell, glamorous even in sweatpants, adores the children she struggles to support. Opal combines an antic wit with an appetite for cocaine while the welfare agency that is supposed to help her squanders its millions. Drawing on more than a decade of reporting, DeParle traces their story back six generations to a common ancestor a Mississippi slave and adds politicians, case workers, reformers, and rogues to an epic exploration of America's struggle with poverty and dependency.
Probing the law's unlikely successes and haunting failures American Dream provides a startling expose in this election year.
"While campaigning for president in 1992, Bill Clinton vowed to 'end welfare as we know it'; four years later, the much publicized slogan evolved into a law that sent nine million women and children off the rolls. New York Times reporter DeParle takes an eye-opening look at the controversial law through the lives of three black women affected by it, all part of the same extended family, and at the shapers of the policy. He moves back and forth between the women's tough Milwaukee neighborhoods and the strategy sessions and speeches of Clinton, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and others. But the best parts of the book are its slices of life: DeParle accompanies the women on trips to the dentist, on visits to loved ones in jail, to job-training workshops and on travels to Mississippi. He offers few solutions for breaking the cycle of poverty and dependency in America, but DeParle's large-scale conclusion is that moving poor women into the workforce contributed to declines in crime, teen pregnancy and crack use. (Sept. 9) Forecast: This long-focus book will appeal to readers of David Shipler's bestselling The Working Poor and the highly praised Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, and may receive a small boost from renewed Clinton mania." Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Jason DeParle's American Dream is a singular achievement. He interweaves a fascinating discussion of the politics of the welfare reform movement with a poignant portrayal of the lives of three women in one extended family who move on and off the welfare rolls in a struggle to survive. This is must reading for anyone concerned about the limitations of American social policy in addressing the problems of the urban poor." William Julius Wilson, author of The Truly Disadvantaged and Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor, Harvard University
"Jason DeParle's American Dream vividly reveals how public policy affecting the poor is conceived, marketed, enacted, and implemented. He shows what 'welfare reform' does for those on high and what it does to those below who most directly feel the consequences of policies over which they have little influence. DeParle's book delivers its haunting news with a jolt. It informs us about the continuation of a dire national tragedy with a skillfulness that demands admiration." Randall Kennedy, Professor, Harvard Law School
"In American Dream, Jason DeParle gives us a first-ever, penetrating look into the evolving consequences of the Clinton administration's socalled 'welfare reform' of 1996. DeParle's exceptional reporting takes us back to the intergenerational source of so much black poverty stretching back six generations in the Caples family and outlining how three members of this extended African American family, Angie, Opal and Jewell, have coped with the crises of urban poverty and demands of the welfare bureaucracy. We learn intimate details of the Caples' struggles on the periphery of American life from slavery and subsequent sharecropping serfdom in the Mississippi Delta to the slums of Milwaukee in the early 1990s....American Dream is an extraordinary effort by an extraordinary journalist." Leon Dash, author of When Children Want Children: The Urban Crisis in Adolescent Childbearing and Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America
"No other journalist matches Jason DeParle's skill in showing the effects of social policy on real people. This is a book that will break your heart and open your mind. In the vividness of its characters and the sweep of its ambition, American Dream is the Les Miserables of our day. It follows three women on their journey into and out of the welfare system, but it does much more. It carries us through four generations of their ancestors' history, to explain the origins of their poverty. And it brings us five years of political high drama, to explain the law that comes crashing into their lives. This book teems with humor, surprise, paradox, and redemption." Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking
"With equal measure of compassion and dispassion, Jason DeParle confronts us inescapably with the reality of poverty in America. You cannot read this book and remain indifferent to those who are being left behind. This is one of the great works on social policy of this generation." Daniel Schorr, Senior News Analyst, National Public Radio
"In this beautifully written, heartfelt book, Jason DeParle has pulled off a stunning feat of journalistic storytelling. Equally at home in the West Wing as he is on the inner-city streets of Milwaukee, DeParle chronicles the story behind the most important piece of social policy to come along in decades, and its impact on real lives. With a novelist's eye for irony and detail, he is unflinching in his reporting. What he finds will surprise you. It did me. American Dream is a must read for anyone concerned about the fate of our poor." Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here
"[W]ith this search through the past for a greater understanding of the present, American Dream begins to transcend journalism." Anthony Walton, The New York Times Book Review
"[B]eautifully written....DeParle has produced a model journalistic account of the genesis and the aftermath of welfare reform....The problem is, by challenging and informing us through the singular stories of three troubled women, DeParle brings us little closer to the answers we need. What we do not find out is what all this means for the American dream." Jacob S. Hacker, The New Republic
(read the entire New Republic review
About the Author
Jason DeParle, a reporter for The New York Times, has also written for The New Republic, the Washington Monthly, and The New Orleans Times-Picayune. A former Henry Luce Scholar, DeParle was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 and 1998 for his reporting on the welfare system.
Table of Contents
part i. welfare
1 | The Pledge: Washington and Milwaukee, 1991 3
2 | The Plantation: Mississippi, 18401960 20
3 | The Crossroads: Chicago, 19661991 38
4 | The Survivors: Milwaukee, 19911995 58
part ii. ending welfare
5 | The Accidental Program: Washington, 19351991 85
6 | The Establishment Fails: Washington, 19921994 101
7 | Redefining Compassion: Washington, 19941995 123
8 | The Elusive President: Washington, 19951996 138
9 | The Radical Cuts the Rolls: Milwaukee, 19951996 155
part iii. after welfare
10 | Angie and Jewell Go to Work: Milwaukee, 19961998 175
11 | Opals Hidden Addiction: Milwaukee, 19961998 196
12 | Half a Safety Net: The United States, 19972003 208
13 | W-2 Buys the Crack: Milwaukee, 1998 222
14 | Golf Balls and Corporate Dreams: Milwaukee, 19971999 230
15 | Caseworker XMI28W Milwaukee, 19982000 251
16 | Boyfriends: Milwaukee, Spring 1999 264
17 | Money: Milwaukee, Summer 1999 282
18 | A Shot at the American Dream: Milwaukee, Fall 1999 303
Epilogue | Washington and Milwaukee, 19992004 323