MILWAUKEE -- Angela Jobe, 38, is a grandmother who has lived most of her adult life at ground zero of the struggle to "end welfare as we know it." At about the time candidate Bill Clinton was promising to do that -- in autumn 1991 -- she boarded a bus in Chicago, heading for Milwaukee, lured by Wisconsin's larger benefits and lower rents. Unmarried, uneducated and unemployed, she already had three children and eight years on welfare.
Today she is in her ninth year of employment in a nursing home, earning $10.50 an hour. How she left welfare, and how her life did and did not change, is one of the entwined stories in Jason DeParle's riveting new book, "American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare," the fruit of DeParle's seven years of immersion in Jobe's world.
His subject is the attempt of welfare reformers, in Wisconsin and then Washington, to end the intergenerational transmission of poverty in the chaotic lives of fractured families. His book reads more like a searing novel of urban realism -- Theodore Dreiser comes to Milwaukee -- than a policy tract. His reporting refutes the 1930s paradigm of poverty -- the idea that the perennially poor are strivers like everyone else but are blocked by barriers unrelated to their behavior. Angela Jobe is not Tom Joad.
After the liberalization of welfare in the mid-1960s, the percentage of black children born to unmarried mothers reached 50 by 1976 (it is almost 70 today), and within a generation the welfare rolls quadrupled. But DeParle says people mistakenly thought people like Jobe were organizing their lives around having babies to get a check. Actually, he says, their lives were too disorganized for that.
What can help organize lives, at least those that are organizable, is work. The requirements of work -- mundane matters such as punctuality, politeness and hygiene -- are essential to the culture of freedom. The 1996 reform replaced a lifetime entitlement to welfare with a five-year limit and called for states to experiment with work requirements. Welfare rolls have since declined more than 60 percent. DeParle writes:
"In Creek County, Oklahoma, the rolls fell 30 percent even as the Legislature was still debating the law, a decline officials largely attributed to the mere rumors of what was coming. . . . The late 1990s can be thought of as a bookend to the 1960s. One era, branding welfare a right, sent the rolls to sudden highs; the other, deeming welfare wrong, shrank them equally fast."
The mass movement from welfare rolls to employment rolls is progress. But DeParle's unsentimental reporting offers scant confirmation of the welfare reformers' highest hope: that when former welfare mothers go to work, their example will transform the culture of their homes, breaking the chain of behaviors that passes poverty down the generations. On the street where Jobe lives today, almost every house is the home of a working mother with children but no husband.
When Jobe was 13, her parents divorced, and she went to live with her father, who let her roam Chicago's South Side streets. The father of the child she had at 17 is serving a 65-year prison sentence. And the wheel turns: Jobe's daughter Kesha got pregnant at 16. Kesha told the 14-year-old father at his eighth-grade graduation, and hardly heard from him again. Kesha, a checkout clerk at a grocery store, has two children and lives with a boyfriend.
Jobe's house teems with life. During a recent visit there were two infants in diapers, and the 17-year-old girlfriend who lives there with Jobe's 18-year-old son.
Milwaukee's mandatory self-esteem classes were part of the "hassle factor" designed to diminish welfare's appeal. But, says Jobe, "there's nothing wrong with my self-esteem," the timbre of her voice validating the assertion. She is a 4-foot-9 geyser of pluck, humor and compassion for her nursing home patients. She has no sense of entitlement. DeParle says of her and the other two women whose stories he tells, "When welfare was there for the taking, they got on the bus and took it; when it wasn't, they made other plans."
What of her future? Today she says, "I don't think much about tomorrow." Complete absorption in the present is both a cause and a consequence of living a precarious and disorganized life, but so far her post-welfare story illustrates two truisms: People respond to strong social cues, as she did when she got on the bus and later when she got off welfare. Second, poor people are more resilient -- and more resistant to fundamental behavior modification -- than their various would-be improvers suppose.