Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare

By Jason DeParle. Viking. 422 pp. $25.95

Jason DeParle's American Dream is the story of what happened to three real families when we "reformed" welfare. In 1996, Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed, a bill that eliminated Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC), a federal program that dated back to the New Deal. AFDC provided small cash grants to 5 million impoverished families, most of them headed by single mothers. It also functioned as the gateway to food stamps and Medicaid for these families. Together these subsidies provided a penurious livelihood for some of the nation's poorest women and children.

The program that replaced AFDC in 1996 was called Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), the triumph of a 30-year campaign by right-wing think tanks and conservative Republicans who charged that AFDC discouraged marriage, encouraged out-of-wedlock births and bred a culture that devalued work and encouraged criminality and sloth. The campaign was relentless, from President Ronald Reagan's repeated invocation of "welfare queens" to Sen. Phil Gramm's bizarre claims that welfare was costing hundreds of billions of dollars. On the other side, the opposition was feeble. No one really liked welfare. Recipients resented the low grants, the hassles and the humiliating treatment they received at the welfare office. And liberals generally were ambivalent about a program that provided a bare subsistence but did little to improve the quality of life in low-income communities. They were not against reform, but they envisioned one that would support the efforts of poor mothers to raise their children. The real-world reform that was on the table threatened to simply make cash assistance hard to get, and liberals sent up cries of alarm as the passage of the bill became imminent.

DeParle, a New York Times reporter assigned to the welfare and poverty beat during this period, became an important figure in these wars. His news articles seemed to represent a voice of reasoned objectivity. To most Americans, it seemed that welfare reform succeeded, simply because the rolls fell dramatically; that's what the news reported. In fact, the rolls fell because women who violated one or another of the numerous new rules lost their benefits. Or they were terminated because they came up against new time limits or Kafkaesque practices that made it extremely difficult for them to apply in the first place.

But what happened to these women and their families? To his credit, DeParle did not tire of his subject when the political wars died down; instead, he undertook a detailed, even intimate, study of the effects of welfare reform on three families in Milwaukee, in a way the epicenter of reform. Tommy Thompson, then the state's Republican governor, was determined to make welfare reform his motto as he pursued higher political office. He is now secretary of Health and Human Services.

The central characters in American Dream are Jewell, Angie and Opal, three mothers who lost welfare, presumably in return for a better life. DeParle befriended them and stayed very close to them, their men and their children for almost a decade, the decade during which the welfare reforms took place.

DeParle is a fastidious reporter, and the story he tells contradicts the central premises of welfare reform. These women were not mired in sloth: They worked, even when they were on welfare. And they weren't from multi-generational welfare families; their mothers worked as well, and so did the mothers of their male partners. Losing welfare made Angie and Jewell work harder, with unsettling consequences for their children, who began to fail in school. Losing welfare didn't make the drug-addicted Opal go clean but instead led to her unraveling, as she desperately stole from friends, lost her children and then dropped out of sight. The staff of the new work-first system was oblivious to all this and at the top was astonishingly corrupt besides, taking advantage of the privatization of services to benefit corporations with which they became associated.

In the end, this is a fascinating account that makes a deeply incoherent argument. DeParle doesn't come to terms with his own reporting, either at the time of welfare reform or now. At the height of the welfare-reform frenzy, he wrote a celebratory story about Opal's personal success in the New York Times Magazine. Now he knows better. But he does not use what he knows to reflect on his earlier opinions.

"The notion that work is good for the soul," DeParle writes, "runs deep in American life." It seems to run deep in his psyche, too. But his own work shows that welfare didn't cause the pathologies attributed to it. If he, or we, think work is good for the soul, why not make it easier for women to work by providing childcare, and health care, and decent wages? And by allowing them to keep the welfare lifeline as well?

Nor has getting rid of the welfare "albatross" made us more generous to the poor. Poverty is rising, and support systems continue to shrink. But since the curtain fell on the theater of welfare reform, Americans have been all too ready to forget about it. *

Frances Fox Piven is on the faculty of the graduate school of the City University of New York. She is the author of "Regulating the Poor" and "The War at Home."