The New York Times
American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfareby Jason DeParle
In this definitive work, two-time Pulitzer finalist Jason DeParle cuts between the mean streets of Milwaukee and the corridors of Washington to produce a masterpiece of literary journalism. At the heart of the story are three cousins whose different lives follow similar trajectories. Leaving welfare, Angie puts her heart in her work. Jewell bets on an imprisoned
In this definitive work, two-time Pulitzer finalist Jason DeParle cuts between the mean streets of Milwaukee and the corridors of Washington to produce a masterpiece of literary journalism. At the heart of the story are three cousins whose different lives follow similar trajectories. Leaving welfare, Angie puts her heart in her work. Jewell bets on an imprisoned man. Opal guards a tragic secret that threatens her kids and her life. DeParle traces their family history back six generations to slavery and weaves poor people, politicians, reformers, and rogues into a spellbinding epic.
With a vivid sense of humanity, DeParle demonstrates that although we live in a country where anyone can make it, generation after generation some families don’t. To read American Dream is to understand why.
The New York Times
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American DreamThree Women, Ten Kids, And A Nation's Drive To End Welfare
By Jason DeParle
Viking AdultISBN: 0-670-89275-0
Chapter OneThe Pledge: Washington and Milwaukee, 1991
Bruce Reed needed a better line.
A little-known speechwriter in a long-shot campaign, he was trapped in the office on a Saturday afternoon, staring at a flat phrase. A few weeks earlier, his boss, Bill Clinton, had stood on the steps of the Arkansas Capitol to announce he was running for president. One of the things Clinton had criticized that day was welfare. "We should insist that people move off the welfare rolls and onto the work rolls," he said. It wasn't the kind of thing most Democrats said, which was one reason Reed liked it; he thought the party carried too much liberal baggage, especially in its defense of the dole. But the phrase wasn't particularly memorable, either. With Clinton planning a big speech at Georgetown University, Reed tried again.
"If you can work, you'll have to do so," he wrote.
Mmmmm ... still not right.
At thirty-one, Reed had a quick grin and an unlined face, but he was less of an innocent than he seemed. Five months earlier, when Clinton was still weighing the race, Reed had struck a hard-boiled pose. "A message has to fit on a bumpersticker," he wrote. "Sharpen those lines and you'll get noticed. Fuzz them and you'll disappear." Now the welfare rolls hit new highs with every passing month. And Reed lacked bumper-sticker stuff. At 5:00 p.m. he joined a conference call with a half-dozen other operatives in the fledgling campaign. Clinton wasn't on the line. He was in such a bad mood he wanted to cancel the speech. His voice was weak; he didn't feel ready. He wanted Mario Cuomo, the rival he most feared, to define his vision first. He was angry to hear that invitations had gone out and it was too late to turn back.
The group reviewed the latest draft, which outlined Clinton's domestic plans, and agreed the welfare section needed work. How about calling for an "end to permanent welfare"? Reed asked. That was better. Not quite right, but better. They swapped a few more lines, and the following morning Reed sent out a draft with a catchy new phrase. If Clinton spotted the change, he didn't say. On October 23, 1991, he delivered the words as drafted: "In a Clinton administration we're going to put an end to welfare as we know it." By the time it was clear the slogan mattered, no one could say who had coined it.
At first, no one noticed. The New York Times didn't cover the speech, and The Washington Post highlighted Clinton's promise to create a "New Covenant." But soon the power of the phrase made itself known. End welfare as we know it. "Pure heroin," one of the pollsters called it. When Reed reached the White House, he taped the words to his wall and called them his "guiding star." In time, they would send 9 million women and children streaming from the rolls.
One of those women was Angela Jobe. The month Bill Clinton announced that he was running for president, she stepped off a Greyhound bus in Milwaukee to start a new life. She was twenty-five years old and arrived from Chicago towing two large duffel bags and three young kids. Angie had a pretty milk-chocolate face and a fireplug build-her four-foot-eleven-inch frame carried 150 pounds-and the combination could make her look tender or tough, depending on her mood. She had never seen Milwaukee before and pronounced herself unimpressed. "Why they got all these old-ass houses!" she groused. "Where the brick at?" Irreverence was Angie's religion. She arrived in Milwaukee as she moved through the world, a short, stout fountain of exclamation points, half of them capping sentences that would peel paint from the bus station walls. Absent her animating humor, the transcript may sound off-putting. But up close her habit of excitable swearing, about her "cheap-ass jobs" and "crazy-ass friends" and her "too-cool, too-slick motherfucker" men, came off as something akin to charm. "I just express myself so accurately!" she laughed.
The cascade of off-color commentary, flowing alongside the late-night cans of Colt 45, could make Angie seem like a jaded veteran of ghetto life. Certainly she had plenty to feel jaded about. She grew up on the borders of Chicago's gangland. Her father was a drunk. She had her first baby at seventeen, dropped out of high school, and had two more in quick succession. She didn't have a diploma or a job, and the man she loved was in jail. By the time she arrived in Milwaukee, she had been on welfare for nearly eight years, the sum of her adult life. The hard face was real but also a mask. Her mother had worked two jobs to send her to parochial school, and though Angie tried to hide it, she still bore traces of the English student from Aquinas High. Lots of women came to Milwaukee looking for welfare checks. Not many then felt the need to start a poem about their efforts to discern God's will:
I'm tired Of trying to understand What God wants of me
Worried that was too irreverent, Angie substituted "the world" for "God" and stored the unfinished page in a bag so high in her closet she couldn't reach it with a chair. The old red nylon bag was filled with her yellowing treasures: love letters, journals, poems by Gwendolyn Brooks, the hospital bracelets that each of her kids had worn in the nursery. Stories of street fights Angie was happy to share, but the bag was so private that hardly anyone knew it existed. "Don't you know I like looking mean?" she said one day. While it sounded like one of her self-mocking jokes, Angie segued into a quiet confession. "If people think you're nice, they'll take your kindness for weakness. That's a side of me I don't want anybody to see. That way I don't have to worry about nobody hurting me." In welfare terms, Angie could pass as a paragon of "dependency": unmarried, uneducated, and unemployed. But Angie never thought of herself as depending on anything. She saw herself as a strong, self-reliant woman who did what it took to get by. She saw herself as a survivor.
No one survived on welfare alone, especially in Chicago, where benefits were modest but rents were not. Sometimes Angie worked, without telling welfare, at fast-food restaurants. Stints at Popeye's, Church's, and KFC had marked her as a chicken-joint triathlete, a minimum-wage workhorse steeped in grease. She also relied on her children's father, Greg, a tall, soft-spoken man in braids who looked out at the world with seductive eyes. Greg, not welfare, marked the major border in Angie's life. Before Greg, she wore a plaid jumper and went to parochial school. After Greg, right after Greg, Angie was a teenage mother. Their relationship hadn't completely passed as a portrait of harmony. Once, when he went without feeding the kids, she tried to shoot him. But unlike most teen parents, they stayed together, and by the time their oldest child was entering school, Greg was making "beaucoup money" in the industry employing most men Angie knew. Greg was selling cocaine. His arrest, in the summer of 1991, hit her with the force of a sudden death. She had never even lived alone, never mind raised kids by herself. Without Greg, she couldn't pay the bills: rent was more than her entire welfare check. Ninety miles away, the economics were reversed. You could sign up for welfare, get an apartment, and have money left over. So many poor families were fleeing Chicago that taxpayers in southern Wisconsin griped about "Greyhound therapy." Higher welfare, lower rent-that's all Angie knew about Milwaukee when she stepped off the bus.
A few days later, Greg's sister arrived. Since Angie and Greg were all but married, Jewell was her all but sister-in-law. She was also Angie's closest friend. Jewell's boyfriend, Tony, had been caught in the same arrest, so Jewell faced a similar problem: she was twenty-two, with a three-year-old son, and unless she moved to the projects she couldn't live on welfare in Chicago. Plus she was six months pregnant. On the outside, they formed a study in contrasts. While Angie groomed herself for durability, Jewell arrived in cover-girl style. She was a half foot taller, with a curl in her hair, perfect teeth, and art gallery nails; with a gleaming pair of tennis shoes, she could turn sweatpants into high couture. She wasn't married, but Tony's letters from jail came addressed to "my sexy wife." Still, there was nothing brittle about her beauty or soft behind her reserve. While Angie swore away her frustrations and cried after too many beers, Jewell treated pain as a weakness best locked inside. Jewell was a survivor, too.
They went about settling down. Piling in with Angie's cousin for a week, they signed up for welfare at a three-story fortress of local fame known by its address, "Twelfth and Vliet." Like the shuttered homes around it, the building had traced the parabolic journey of American industrial life; launched as a department store near the century's start, it had sparkled with the city's blue- collar prosperity before being padlocked in 1961 and sold off to the county. By the time Angie and Jewell arrived, the building overlooked an eight-lane gash that funneled the prosperity to the suburbs north and west, and there was nothing left inside but long forms and hard chairs. The thirty-one-page application asked if they owned any stocks, bonds, trust funds, life insurance, farm equipment, livestock, snowmobiles, or boats. It asked nothing about the tragedy that had brought them to the county's door. Welfare dispensed money, not advice.
A few days later, they had their checks and started the apartment hunt. Jewell got a tip from a neighbor. If they moved into a homeless shelter first, the Red Cross would pay their security deposit and first month's rent. ("Getting your Red Cross" it was called.) "Homeless shelter" may conjure a vision of winos in a barracks, but the Family Crisis Center, in a converted monastery in the heart of the ghetto, had a cheerful air. It offered private rooms, a play area for the kids, and a chance to meet new people. From the shelter, they resumed the search for housing, and Angie found the perfect solution: adjacent apartments in a renovated Victorian complex on First Street, owned by an old woman who soon grew too senile to collect the rent.
On October 23, 1991-the day Clinton pledged to "end welfare"-two welfare mothers and four welfare kids awoke on a wooden floor. The apartment didn't have a refrigerator or stove, so they fashioned three meals from lunch meat. At five, Angie's middle child, Redd, still cried for his father. He was having a harder time accepting the arrest than Kesha, an openhearted, adaptable girl of seven, or Von, who, even at four, coolly distanced himself from family trouble; Redd was as hot as his name. Angie ached for Greg, too, but she was relieved to finish the move. There's something to having a place of your own, even when it's empty and hard.
As soon as he pledged to end welfare, Clinton had second thoughts. He needed the liberals, who turn out in primaries, but Cuomo, the liberals' philosopher-king, struck back by calling dependency a myth. Clinton feared his enemies might compare him to another white southerner who was criticizing welfare in the fall of 1991, the ex-Klansman David Duke. (Cuomo tried to do just that.) Looking ahead to the Super Tuesday ballot, Clinton chided his staff that "half this election is about winning the southern black vote." A black governor, Doug Wilder, was running, and Clinton feared Wilder might call him a racist. "This is a major, major deal," Clinton warned.
To protect himself, Clinton launched an attack against Duke even before the Georgetown speech. He also put out feelers to Jesse Jackson, who kept his guns quiet. But the best reassurance came from black voters themselves. In a focus group in North Carolina in the fall of 1991, they said they were all for cutting welfare, as long as they sensed an equal commitment to education and jobs. A campaign aide, Celinda Lake, flew home amazed. "The welfare message, worded correctly, plays extremely well in the black community," she reported. Indeed, far from alienating anyone, Clinton's welfare pledge roused voters everywhere. Clinton's main pollster, Stan Greenberg, was startled by the emotions it raised. Three-quarters of the people he probed in New Hampshire were impressed by Clinton's stance on welfare, while just a quarter cared he was a Rhodes Scholar. It was "by far, the single most important component of Clinton's biography," Greenberg wrote in a campaign memo. Voters were "stunned to hear a Democrat saying ... 'Hey, you on the lower end can't abuse the welfare system any more.'"
As the scandal-a-day campaign rolled on, welfare emerged as its all-purpose elixir, there to cure what ailed. It reassured ethnic voters in Illinois, who found Clinton too slick. (They "were taken aback when Clinton talked about welfare," Greenberg wrote.) It soothed the reflexive distrust among Florida conservatives. ("The strongest media message was introduced by the 'welfare spot.'") It won Clinton a fresh look in Pennsylvania, where more than half the voters had character doubts. ("No other message comes close to this one on intensity and breadth of interest.") It was a values message, an economic message, and a policy message in one. It supplied his second-most popular line at the Democratic convention, and his most effective answer to the GOP's post-convention attacks. While the pledge to "end welfare" featured prominently in the barrage of late-season ads, the only mystery, given its force, was that Clinton didn't stress it even more.
The Republicans felt robbed-welfare was their issue. Sagging in the polls, President George H. W. Bush tried to copy the tune but sounded painfully off-key. "Get a job or get off the dole!" he screeched. On November 3, 1992, Clinton, the "end-welfare" candidate, became the end-welfare president-elect.
By then, Angie had spent another year in the system Clinton was pledging to end. When she arrived in the fall of 1991, the country already had a small welfare-to-work program called JOBS, and soon she got a letter. "Angela Jobe is a mandatory work program registrant," it began. "Work" was a bit of a euphemism, since the program mostly sent people to study for their high school diplomas, not to sweep the streets. "Mandatory" was euphemistic, too: Angie could have ignored the summons and kept more than 90 percent of her food stamps and cash. Still, she was happy to go. "I always worked!" Angie said. "What-I'm supposed to move up here and get lazy?" As a statement of fact, "I always worked" ignored some large resume gaps. But as an assertion of identity it was revealing. Despite nearly eight years of welfare checks, Angie saw herself as a worker.
Arriving for the program, Angie discovered that six weeks of training could turn her into a certified nursing assistant. Nursing assistant: now that had a ring. She didn't know what nursing assistants did, but she figured they made good money. And it sounded better than frying chickens, "'cause 'chicken place' just ain't a nice career."
Excerpted from American Dream by Jason DeParle Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Jason DeParle, a reporter for The New York Times, has also written for The New Republic, the Washington Monthly, and The New Orleans Times-Picayune. A former Henry Luce Scholar, DeParle was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 and 1998 for his reporting on the welfare system.
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