A Reformed System?

Perhaps only Jeremiah’s call to the Jewish captives to "work for the welfare of the city" in which they were being held could have been more controversial than Bill Clinton’s 1996 drive to "end welfare as we know it." Without making provisions to increase jobs, child care, or even a safety net, Clinton’s welfare "reform" bill offered states block grants to aid the poor in whatever way they saw fit, encouraging them to cut their welfare budgets by sending the poor to work - whether there were jobs or not.

Clinton’s bill led to the resignation of several members of his administration, was widely criticized by advocates for the poor, and caused many social justice activists (including me) to nearly give up on the Democrats. A group of religious leaders, including several from Sojourners, were arrested in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol protesting the bill.

In American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare, Jason DeParle puts faces on those caught up in one of the most controversial issues of the past 20 years. DeParle, a reporter for The New York Times, weaves together the stories of three single African-American mothers in Milwaukee on welfare with the story of the political process behind welfare reform. For seven years, DeParle followed Angie Jobe, Jewell Reed, and Opal Caples, all members of the same extended family, as their welfare benefits are cut off and they struggle with varying degrees of success to find solid jobs to support themselves and their children.

As DeParle shows, the factors that led to generations of dependence on welfare are deeply rooted in the history of the United States. He traces the dysfunction in the lives of Angie, Jewell, and Opal back to their families’ roots as sharecroppers on the Mississippi plantation of the family of Sen. James Eastland, one of the South’s most ardent defenders of white supremacy. Even after leaving the South for Chicago in the mid-1950s, the Caples family never quite found security. They continued to struggle through situations created by racism and lack of opportunity, as well as substance abuse, absent fathers, and teenage motherhood. American Dream vividly illustrates the complexity of chronic poverty and its causes. "We live in a country where anyone can make it," DeParle writes, "yet generation after generation, some families don’t. To argue about welfare is to argue about why."

THE BOOK SHOWS that neither conservatives nor liberals had all the answers to the questions raised by welfare dependency. To some extent, welfare reform worked, forcing native-born poor to find some of the "piss and vinegar that immigrants had," as Clinton hoped. DeParle points out that when welfare benefits were cut, people didn’t march or riot - many did what they had to do to support themselves.

However, while the number of families on welfare has plummeted from 5 million to 2 million since 1996 - a truly incredible statistic - there also has been an increase in the number of people who depend on food banks and use homeless shelters. Tragically, the lives of many poor people, including the three women portrayed in this book, are missing even these services and the faith-based organizations that support them.

Welfare reform did little to end the chaos in the lives of women like Angie, Jewell, and Opal. Nor did it improve the lives of their kids who, with few alternatives, are going through childhood in "a sea of boredom, punctuated by islands of violence," DeParle said. And crucial to changing the situation for poor women and their children is addressing the failure of fathers in poverty-stricken communities, something welfare reform did nothing about.

That people like Angie and Jewell have "made it" and are eking out a living is a testament to their individual strength and determination, but it does not prove the success of welfare reform. For every success story, there is one like Opal’s, whose life descended into chaos after being forced off welfare. Peter Edelman, one of the Clinton officials who resigned in protest of the bill, writes, "Reducing the number of people on welfare is laudable only if it results in making people better off. Ending poverty and achieving a better shake for all of those in difficulty...are the right goals."

An ancient Hebrew sage wrote that through work poor people may produce abundant food, but in the end, injustice sweeps it all away (Proverbs 13:23). In some cases welfare reform may have helped accomplish the former, but, as DeParle’s powerful book shows, it never spoke to the latter.

Aaron McCarroll Gallegos is a writer living in Alexandria, Virginia.

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