Why Jason DeParle Gets It Right in American Dream

Dear Mickey and Ron,

I’m happy that we can use Jason DeParle’s recent book American Dream, a powerful and well-written account of the journey of three Milwaukee women in the wake of the 1996 welfare bill, as an occasion to discuss the welfare reform movement. Frankly, I’m glad welfare as we knew it ended. Despite my many misgivings about the 1996 bill, including its unconscionable cuts in food stamps and Medicaid for legal immigrants, what’s to like about a system that gave mothers a small monthly check—often not enough to pay the rent—in exchange for not working and staying single?

One thing that has become abundantly clear since 1996, which DeParle points out, is that a great many welfare recipients could indeed work. In reality, a sizable percentage of welfare recipients, including Angie and Jewell, two of American Dream’sthree protagonists, were already working.

This simple fact makes a mockery of the liberal argument that it was either unrealistic or too harsh to make welfare recipients work for their check. It also gives the lie to the conservative argument that welfare recipients generally lacked the will to work.

For welfare recipients who were already working (perhaps the majority), and for many of those whom didn’t work before the 1996 welfare bill gave states like Wisconsin control of their own welfare-to-work programs, all it took was a strictly enforced work requirement to move them off the rolls.

I was particularly struck by Angie’s story. On welfare 12 years, with four kids and little work experience, Angie is the kind of person about whom liberals worried and conservatives fumed. Within six months, she got a job as a nurses’ aide. In spite of the literally backbreaking work (nurses’ aides have higher rates of occupational injuries than coal miners) and shifts that required her to either get up at 4 a.m. or return home close to midnight, Angie loved her job. And despite incredible turbulence at home, she kept it. In the welfare-to-work world, she’s a success story.

What deeply troubles me is that Angie—who through hard work ended up near the top in earnings for former welfare recipients—barely ended up better off economically than when she was on welfare. Sure, Angie earned more income. But when you take into account her work expenses—which in her case didn’t even include child care because she left her four children home alone—she either came out slightly ahead or it was a wash.

DeParle describes Angie’s struggles in detail in this book. Her power is shut off three times in three years. She often runs out of food, which precipitates fighting in the house. She loses her health insurance. She’s forever in debt and seriously behind on one or another bill. You can certainly fault Angie for some of her choices, including letting her crack-addicted cousin live with her for years despite repeated stealing. But by and large here is a woman who, according to the now familiar phrase, works hard and plays by the rules. At one point she says of herself: “I’m a good hardworking woman who can’t seem to get up off the ground.”

Mickey and Ron, I trust you agree that our country has a moral obligation to do what it takes to ensure hardworking women like Angie canget up off the ground, and I’m interested in your views about how we might do that. Personally, I agree with many of DeParle’s suggestions—raise the minimum wage, provide larger tax credits to the working poor, make health insurance available, provide more on-the-job training, try to raise the earnings of inner city men and strengthen their ties with their children, even experiment with strategies to promote healthy marriages.

I also share DeParle’s dismay at the tax cutting frenzy that has made such investments improbable and his disappointment in the Bush administration for choosing extreme work participation rules rather than sensible next steps in the drive to reform welfare.

Certainly, there’s plenty more ground to cover in the next few days of our debate: the abysmal record of the contractors charged with implementing Wisconsin’s welfare-to-work program; welfare reform’s impact on children; what to do about those left on the welfare rolls; and the often negative role men have to play in the story.

I look forward to your response to these initial perspectives, Mickey and Ron …