American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare
by Jason Deparle
A review by Jacob S. Hacker
In 1994, Republicans in California distributed a voter education pamphlet titled
"The Welfare Mess." On its cover was a vivid montage of ghetto pathology: food
stamps intermixed with hundred-dollar bills, drug paraphernalia alongside a snub-nosed
pistol. Inside, the pamphlet catalogued welfare's pernicious effects. Teen pregnancy,
runaway crime, moral decay, even falling SAT scores -- all were blamed on a welfare
system run amok. The pamphlet closed with a dire warning: "If You Don't Vote,
Today the Republican Party that dramatically seized Congress in 1994 has a near-stranglehold on power. It runs all three branches of government, it holds a majority of governorships, and it is led by the most conservative president to occupy the modern Oval Office. And yet the anti-welfare jeremiads that the right once so effectively employed are gone. The "d-words" once on every conservative's lips -- "dependence," "deviance," "dysfunction" -- are virtually unspoken. George W. Bush has governed mostly from the right, but he ran for office as a "compassionate conservative," barely mentioning welfare. Since September 2002, the welfare reform bill that congressional Republicans engineered and President Clinton signed in 1996 has been up for congressional renewal, but almost no one outside of a narrow circle of politicos and policymakers is paying attention.
It is an odd and improbable development -- one of the most wrenching and divisive issues in America wiped clean from the slate of our politics like scribbling from a chalkboard. Yet it is perhaps no more odd or improbable than the fact that a fiscally tiny program with an unobjectionable title ("Aid to Families with Dependent Children") and a clientele that never exceeded 6 percent of the population became liberalism's symbolic beachhead and conservatives' poster child for everything wrong with American social policy.
For decades, welfare took on an outsize importance in public debate. (In a notorious poll in 1994, Americans identified the program -- which, at its peak, had a federal price tag of roughly $14 billion, or less than one-twentieth the expenditures of Social Security -- as one of the two largest items in the federal budget.) It was the prism through which all discussions of economic disadvantage eventually passed, refracting even sympathetic analyses into decrepit inner cities and their dispossessed, dangerous, largely dark-skinned residents. In the wake of welfare reform, however, welfare is scarcely on the agenda at all. Nor, for that matter, is economic disadvantage. From a tiny program that earned the ire of every ideological viewpoint, welfare has become just a tiny program -- drained of the rancor and conflict, but also of the larger questions about opportunity, assistance, and obligation that our nation's leaders, now more than ever, should be asking.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. When welfare reform passed and the welfare rolls unexpectedly plummeted -- falling, by 2001, to less than half their 1994 high -- liberals saw a silver lining in the clouds. Welfare reform was neither the abject disaster many of them feared nor the unmitigated triumph their opponents celebrated. It was instead an opportunity to shift assistance toward the one group that all sides agreed deserved help: the working poor. Without the burden of stigma, the assumption of indolence, the taint of crime, America's anti-poverty efforts would take a new direction -- a direction signaled by Clinton's massive expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit for those who "work hard and play by the rules" but still have trouble making ends meet. Out of the ashes of reform would emerge a re-invigorated debate about how best to help working families cope with the hardships and the uncertainties of an increasingly insecure economy.
Perhaps that was too much to expect. Perhaps it was forestalled by Bush's assumption of the presidency. Yet tracing the eight years since welfare reform, one cannot help but be struck by the nearsilence that has trailed in its wake. In August, the Census Bureau announced that nearly one-fifth of children were poor in 2003, poverty rates had climbed for a third straight year, and a record 45 million Americans lacked health insurance. No one other than a few activists seemed to notice. It is as if we could speak of the dark passages in the American narrative of advancement only by talking about the horrors of welfare. Now, with the debate over welfare cut down to a size more in line with the program's true importance, we have no language for speaking of problems that neither welfare's demise nor welfare's continuance could ever be expected to solve.
It is one of the many virtues of Jason DeParle's beautifully written book that it forces us to confront these problems anew. DeParle has produced a model journalistic account of the genesis and the aftermath of welfare reform. His important volume is many things at once: an inside account of reform's enactment; a case study of one pioneering state, Wisconsin; and the biographies of three welfare beneficiaries -- all living in Milwaukee, all black, all descended from the same enslaved ancestor -- who found themselves suddenly confronted with a transformed system. In DeParle's drama, the lives of these three women -- Angie, Jewell, and Opal -- and their multiple children and their rotating boyfriends take center stage. And not without reason: their experiences are traumatic, frustrating, and often, because of the self-destructiveness the women routinely exhibit, infuriating.
To his great credit, DeParle wants his book to be more than an unvarnished account of inner-city life. He wants it to be a chronicle of a program's rise and fall that illuminates the choices and challenges the world's richest nation confronts as it grapples with its perennial poverty problem. Yet in trying to carry off this larger hat trick, DeParle comes up short. The stories he tells cannot bear the weight of the questions he asks. Like the struggle over welfare itself, DeParle's book passes before us as a series of vivid stories and images in which welfare ultimately looms far larger than its power to shape the American economy or social structure warrants. The more we see of the twisted lives of DeParle's subjects, the less we seem to understand the massive policy transformation in which they were caught -- or its meaning for the future of our country's social policies.
Welfare's prominent place in American public debates always owed more to its symbolic power than to its programmatic impact. Welfare was like a Rorschach test in which each side saw what it wanted: a stingy system that didn't do enough to lift Americans onto the ladder of opportunity, a permissive system that failed to uphold basic social norms. For a program more studied than perhaps any other social policy, statistics took a backseat to stories in discussions of welfare's effects. There were Ronald Reagan's "welfare queens" living royally while popping out illegitimate kids. There were Newt Gingrich's "twelve-year-olds having babies" and "seventeen-year-olds dying of AIDS." There were tales of broken homes, drug addiction, reckless sexuality, and rampant fraud and abuse.
Little was new in these representations, or in their power to provoke. From the origins of the modern welfare system in the late 1930s -- when the sympathetically viewed white widows who had been the original justification for welfare became the responsibility of the federal Social Security Board rather than state welfare offices -- the stories of pathology and fraud remained remarkably constant, if less overtly racist. According to Michael K. Brown in Race, Money, and the American Welfare State, the antiwelfare rhetoric of the early postwar years already contained all the familiar themes: illegitimacy, dependence, corruption, sex. Few critics went as far as one smear sheet circulating in New York City in the early 1960s with the heading "Uncle Sam: Black Bastard Breeder Supreme." But there was little in the contemporary cries of welfare's critics that was not presaged in a 1963 report on welfare by the New Jersey State Legislature that condemned the "amoral existence of many [welfare] recipients" who maintained "illicit relationships with men of shadowy existence" and "beget illegitimate child after child without apparent remorse or guilt."
In the face of this hellish portrait, the left did what it does best: conducted new research. In the 1980s, the Harvard economists David Ellwood and Mary Jo Bane -- the first of whom would design President Clinton's ill-fated welfare reform plan, the second of whom would resign from her position at the Department of Health and Human Services when Clinton signed the Republicans' far more punitive version two years later -- conducted a series of studies to assess the charges. All of them showed that the criticisms were overblown or outright false. Did welfare cause out-of-wedlock births? No, welfare played at most a bit part in the process of changing family structure. What about the tales of lifelong dependence? Mainly trumped up. Most families were on welfare for short periods of time, though the long-term beneficiaries made up a considerable portion of the rolls at any point. Had welfare made poverty worse? Hardly. The problem was not that the benefits created poverty; it was that they were so low and spottily distributed that they lifted few people out of poverty.
The research showing that welfare's critics were playing fast and loose with the facts was innovative, rigorous, and widely cited. It was also largely beside the point. For all the social-science trappings of the assault on welfare, the critics were not carefully sifting through the evidence. They were telling a story -- one much more straightforward and compelling than the complex rebuttals that followed. What the left was lacking wasn't supportive data. It was an equally powerful portrayal of the less advantaged and society's obligations to them.
There was one group of welfare watchers that found the story-driven character of the welfare debate vastly more congenial than the mind-numbing probing of data: American reporters. Journalists were not attracted to welfare because they shared the right's animus toward it. They were merely looking for powerful stories -- and stories about welfare, crime, and drugs were certainly powerful.
The journalistic gold rush consisted of two distinct migrations -- the first small and painfully self-conscious of its effects on those it chronicled; the second huge and blithely unaware. The first subgroup also constituted a true genre: the journalist in the ghetto. Its specialty was gritty narratives of inner-city peril and pluck that allowed well-off, well-educated readers to slum vicariously and well-off, well-educated reviewers to effuse with words like "unflinching," "heartfelt," and "raw." With roots in Upton Sinclair and Michael Harrington, and exemplified by the work of Jonathan Kozol (and, more recently, the fine reportage of Adrian Nicole LeBlanc and Katherine Boo), this vein dripped sympathy for its subjects. The problem was that in its single-minded focus on impoverished minorities and its general eschewal of moral judgment and policy context, it often ended up reinforcing as many stereotypes as it dismissed.
But the journalist in the ghetto was only a bit player in the media feeding frenzy that descended on urban America in the 1980s -- and like many of the stories that the genre produced, it was hardly a representative subculture. The more powerful assault came from television reporters, and this onslaught had no greater motive than the pursuit of ratings. During the 1980s, journalistic conventions were changing, as deregulation, competition for audience share, and flashy cable upstarts pushed local news toward shock-provoking, "reality"-style reporting. For local network affiliates battling for market dominance, "If it bleeds, it leads" became the unspoken mantra. And though welfare did not bleed, its recipients sadly did. The stories of drive-by shootings and drug violence that jammed the headlines and local news seemed a daily reminder of the hopelessness of urban America, the abject failure of government, the perverse effects of assistance.
They were also a daily reminder to middle America that welfare was a program for others. Most Americans, after all, do not receive welfare directly, nor do they come into regular contact with people they know receive it. Their images of the program are filtered to them through shared understandings, informal conversations, and especially media portrayals. And those portrayals are grossly distorted. In 1999, the political scientist Martin Gilens, in Why Americans Hate Welfare, found that the biggest distortions concern race: African Americans dominate media images of poverty. Making up roughly one-third of the poor, blacks constituted almost 70 percent of the pictures of the poor in news stories in the years before welfare reform, and in stories about the "underclass" they constituted 100 percent. Perhaps not surprisingly, Gilens found that what best explained white Americans' views of welfare was not their income or ideology. It was their assumptions about blacks. When asked to rate their willingness to cut welfare on a 100-point scale, whites who most agreed with the statement "blacks are lazy" were fully 40 points more favorable toward cuts than those who least agreed. Millions of Americans otherwise sympathetic to social programs saw black when they thought of welfare -- and red when they thought of inner-city blacks living high on the taxpayers' dime.
Jason DeParle is a journalist -- one of the nation's best. And he is clearly comfortable with the story-telling methods of the craft. "Perhaps no three people can fully tell the story of 9 million," DeParle says up front of Angie, Jewell, Opal, and the millions who have left the welfare rolls -- an admission more notable for the "perhaps" than for the incontrovertible fact that follows it. But no matter: DeParle largely ignores his own warning. Every twist and turn of welfare, every theory about the causes and consequences of dependence, every gloss -- liberal or conservative -- put on welfare reform, DeParle dutifully digs out of the lives of the three women whom he follows. As the book rolls on, the cumulative effect is oddly desensitizing. We are inundated with images, pressed again and again into anger or despair, but the scenes and emotions add up to less and less. The book ends finally not with a verdict on reform but with a poem written by Angie, which itself closes with a series of unanswered questions. It is a fitting conclusion to an inconclusive book.
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
Perhaps the closest that DeParle comes to a big argument is his insistence that, in his story of welfare, welfare really is not the story. "Paradoxically," he writes, "the closer I got to the welfare story, the less central welfare appeared." It is never exactly clear what DeParle means by this. That welfare recipients never survived on welfare alone? Certainly, few who received welfare could get by, or did get by, without supplementing their income. Most beneficiaries worked before welfare reform; they simply worked in the informal economy where their labor and their earnings were hidden. But DeParle's point seems more fundamental. As the book's title implies, he wants to show that the biographies of Angie, Jewell, and Opal cast light on something larger and deeper: the realities of the "American dream."
In the opening to the book, DeParle waxes eloquent about the final Senate debate over welfare reform:
The senators were talking about welfare the way people talk of it at dinner tables, in terms so ideological as to be virtually religious. They were talking of how their parents and grandparents had made it. (Or hadn't. Or couldn't.) They were talking of how their communities would care for the poor. (Or didn't. Or wouldn't.) At times, it seemed that the very idea of America was on trial. We live in a country rich beyond measure, yet one with unconscionable ghettos. We live in a country where everyone can make it; yet generation after generation, some families don't. To argue about welfare is to argue about why. I'll be pleased if this story challenges, and informs, the assumptions on both sides as much as it has challenged my own.
To "challenge" and "inform" are worthy goals. 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. We find out how conflicted the lives of the inner-city poor are, how resilient these women and their children have to be to deal with the forces pushing them to and fro, how the debate over whether the poor are victims of the system or architects of their own fate misses the mix of fortune and failure that defines most of their lives. We even learn how pleasurable it is to smoke crack. What we do not find out is what all this means for the American dream.
DeParle writes as if the problem of poverty amid plenty were a mystery. But among students of social policy, there is actually little dispute about why so many more people are poor in the United States than in other nations. The answer is simple: our government does much less to lift people out of poverty. A striking finding of the growing body of cross-national statistics on poverty and inequality is that the United States really does not stand out that much on either measure when government taxes and spending are removed from the picture. Put another way, if all the governments of rich democracies suddenly agreed to do nothing to redistribute income, American levels of poverty and inequality would be only modestly higher than the levels found in comparably affluent countries. The reason why American levels of poverty and inequality are in fact much, much higher is that our poverty-reduction efforts are singularly parsimonious and ineffective.
Such comparative reflections may seem beyond the scope of a book on the American welfare system. But DeParle has promised to illuminate the wider vistas of his story. And he does make a heroic attempt to review the growing body of studies evaluating welfare reform. Yet the answers that these studies provide about the millions who left the rolls are not answers to the larger question about opportunity that DeParle poses. It may once have sufficed to treat welfare and poverty as largely synonymous, though even at its peak welfare failed to reach nearly half of poor families. With the massive drop in the rolls, however, focusing just on those who receive welfare or leave it behind misses more and more of the lived experience of low-income Americans. What about the millions who face hardship but do not ever consider entering a welfare office -- who, work or no work, get by largely on their own? Are the gates of opportunity opening for them?
Nothing suggests that they are. The scholarship on social mobility is rife with controversy, but there is little disagreement about the basic picture: most lower-income Americans remain in the bottom half of the income ladder for their entire adult lives; most higher-income Americans remain in the top half for their entire adult lives; the intergenerational transmission of poverty and wealth is quite high; and upward mobility has, if anything, grown slightly more elusive. There is also no dispute that inequality has increased, health insurance and other benefits have declined, and the job market has grown more uncertain. The massive exodus from the welfare rolls in the late-1990s boom and their failure to rise again in the recent downturn shows that those who relied on welfare are surprisingly capable of getting by without it. But the verdict on welfare reform is by no means the verdict on the American dream, and by treating the two as the same DeParle leaves out a huge range of considerations that would need to be grappled with to begin to cast judgment on the latter.
There is another contradiction at the heart of DeParle's account, and it has nothing to do with the individual stories that he tells. He has written a book designed to show that welfare is less important than we believe. Yet the whole book revolves around the genesis and the passage of the 1996 welfare reform bill -- in a word, around welfare.
The contradiction is understandable. DeParle was the most prominent, and the most gifted, reporter on the welfare beat in the 1990s, when the big battles were being fought. And his experience shows: DeParle works mightily to make his biographies of Angie, Jewell, and Opal carry the book, but the narrative really crackles when he turns to Washington politics. No one else has captured so vividly or so concisely the confusing seesaw character of the struggle -- Clinton's entry into the debate, his failure to move quickly, his eventual proposal released just months before the 1994 midterm elections, and then the huge rightward shift that followed and to which Clinton eventually acceded.
Although DeParle is sympathetic to Clinton's embrace of welfare reform in 1992, his portrait of Clinton (whom he interviewed at length for the book) is more devastating than any right-wing hatchet job could be. By pushing welfare reform to the ten-yard line and then egregiously fumbling the ball, Clinton opened the door not just to the Republican congressional takeover, DeParle suggests, but also to a much more draconian law that had much less chance of providing the support needed to move welfare recipients permanently into the workforce.
But conspicuously missing from this saga of missteps and missed chances is one of its more important players: Jason DeParle. When Clinton took office, the young journalist was not so different from the gaggle of policy wonks who rushed to be part of what DeParle wonderfully dubs "a poverty nerd's Shangri-la." Occasionally, DeParle does slip into first-person recounting of his role as a reporter. Still, reading his account one would never suspect how central that role was. Between Clinton's inauguration in January 1993 and the Republican takeover in November 1994, DeParle wrote more than one hundred stories for the Times. And for the most part his stories were not positive. DeParle's specialty was the insider leak about thorny policy details -- a story type made considerably more attractive by the fact that the Clinton administration leaked with abandon. Between January and March of 1994, he unleashed a series of bombshells -- "Change in Welfare Is Likely to Need Big Jobs Program," "Welfare Plan May Require New Taxes," "Clinton Plan Sees Welfare Costing $6 Billion a Year" -- that cemented his reputation as the welfare reporter closest to the inside.
DeParle's stories were good for his reputation. They were not nearly so good for the efforts of David Ellwood and others to try to craft a compromise. Many of the ideas that DeParle publicized were not meant to reach the light of day. They were options, waiting, like everything else, for Clinton's final word. But once they were out, the administration was forced either to deny them and look untruthful or to endorse them and make someone, or some group, very angry. DeParle reports that when a tax on gambling was proposed as a financing idea, "Senator Harry Reid (Democrat of, hmmm, Nevada) pledged, 'I will become the most negative, the most irresponsible, the most obnoxious person of anyone in the Senate.'" What he neglects to mention is that the reporter who broke the story of the gambling-tax idea was him. According to DeParle, the ongoing "spectacle" of pre-emptive stands against leaked ideas "didn't just delay the plan. It sealed its doom." If he is right, then it can be fairly said that DeParle played his own small part in sealing the plan's doom, too.
Whatever the effect of DeParle's reporting, he is certainly right about one feature of Clinton's now-forgotten plan: it was light-years apart from what Republicans proposed and what Clinton signed. Indeed, DeParle's most telling reportage traces not the transformation in the lives of Angie, Jewell, and Opal, but the transformation in Democrats' positions. As the political scientist R. Kent Weaver argues in his richly detailed book Ending Welfare as We Know It, the shift was less a true Democratic conversion than a strategic response to a fluctuating political situation. Clinton's pledge to end welfare got the ball rolling in 1992. But the process was further propelled by Clinton's opportunistic "triangulation" between an increasingly conservative Republican leadership and his liberal party base in Congress.
The ideological shift is easy to forget today, when the modal Democratic stance on welfare is basically to let the 1996 law continue as is. But DeParle reminds us just how big it was. In the fall of 1994, as Republicans gained ground by pillorying welfare, Democratic Representative Bob Matsui was busy excoriating Ellwood for an unnecessarily harsh bill -- even though it phased in work requirements and created public jobs of last resort. By the time Gingrich and his troops rolled into town, writes DeParle, "there were literally no Democratic alternatives. There were only competing Republican visions of what ending welfare would mean."
Today, these Republican visions are heralded for moving millions of families off the rolls and thus freeing up billions in federal and state dollars for child care and job placement. But the most appropriate way to judge the intentions of welfare reform's architects is on the basis of what they thought they were doing; and like their opponents, few of Gingrich's revolutionaries predicted the massive and largely painless drop in the rolls that ended up occurring. What they thought would happen is that the states, having been handed a fixed pot of money (so-called block grants) and strict new federal rules, would have to figure out how to implement the tough requirements mandated by the law within the confines of still-large caseloads.
Almost everyone in 1996 expected the clash of these aims to result in significant pain for many families; they just differed on how worthwhile that pain would be. They also differed on how important it was to provide supports to women and kids who leave welfare -- millions of whom, even when the states were awash with money, found themselves without health insurance or child care when they exited the rolls. Clinton's original vision of welfare reform had two parts: "two years and you're off" and "make work pay." The post-1994 progress of reform saw the embrace of ever-stricter versions of the first goal and increasing silence about the second.
In tracing the mutation of Clinton's ambiguous pledge to "end welfare as we know it" into a specific system of block grants, time limits, caps, and cutoffs, DeParle is an acute reporter. But while accurately capturing the shift, he fails to ask the question that is perhaps most relevant to future developments: was the bill that ultimately passed what the American people wanted? DeParle rarely mentions voters or the public, and he cites scarcely a single survey. As a result, his book inadvertently reinforces the same easy verdict that most have drawn out of the welfare reform experience -- that Americans are, by and large, hostile to government attempts to address social problems and simply don't care about poverty, inequality, or hardship.
But this is the wrong conclusion. In all of the vast research on public views about social policy, the one finding that comes out clearly is that welfare is sui generis. Americans express high support for nearly every public social program and social policy goal -- except welfare. Even in abstract terms, large majorities of the public say that government should help people who have bad luck or who cannot help themselves. During the debate over welfare reform, Clinton was convinced that spending more on welfare was the fastest road to political ruin. But if so, the barrier he faced was not the public: polls throughout the debate showed that Americans expected and were willing to spend more to help move welfare recipients into the workforce.
To be sure, surveys can overstate public support. But in this case there is also ample historical evidence that Americans are willing to tolerate huge amounts of redistribution when the targets of aid are considered morally deserving and when programs limit the potential for abuse. Medicaid, the health program for the poor, grew from 1.4 percent of the federal budget in 1980 to more than 6 percent in 1994. It now pays for one in three hospital births, covers one-fifth of all children, and finances almost half of nursing home care. The Earned Income Tax Credit ballooned from a billion-dollar-a-year program in 1975 into the nation's largest program for the poor. In 2003, thanks to the huge expansion championed by Clinton a decade earlier, the annual credit averaged nearly $1,800 for each of the almost 20 million working-poor families that claimed it.
Even today, as the party in power substitutes economic happy talk for economic justice, there is little evidence that most Americans are buying what it's selling. Our nation's leadership has moved sharply to the right, jamming through two huge tax cuts skewed toward the rich; but when it comes to social policy, most Americans are probably pretty much where they were a decade ago. They are skeptical of government, and critical of those who fail to take responsibility for their own lives, but they broadly support efforts to help anyone with minimal gumption to achieve the American dream.
The lesson of the great welfare debate is not that Americans have no stomach for fighting poverty and insecurity. The lesson is that welfare was a terrible program shrouded in ugly associations and almost perfectly designed to push every public hot button -- and Americans were willing to accept almost anything in its place. No one should be sanguine about the prospects for a renewed discussion of the dark shadows that still obscure the American dream for countless citizens. But the main obstacle to such a discussion is not the American people; it is the folks who are governing them.
four weeks of the New Republic Digital absolutely free
For nearly 90 years, the New
Republic has provided its readers with an intelligent and rigorous
examination of American politics, foreign policy, and culture. Today,
we're proud to offer a faster, easier, and more economical way to enjoy
the magazine TNR Digital. Subscribe today and we'll give
you 4 weeks absolutely free. That's less than 36 cents/week for every
word of content available in the print version, a downloadable replica
of the print magazine, and an array of special online-only features!
to sign up.