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

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

4.3 6
by Jason DeParle

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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.


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.

Editorial Reviews

Anthony Walton
Resolving to clean his ''mental slate,'' DeParle set out to explore the effects of the landmark law. The courageous and deeply disturbing result, American Dream, confounds the clichés of the left as well as the right about race, poverty, class and opportunity in the early 21st century … Through his scrupulous attention, DeParle challenges the nation to contemplate the dreams, or lack thereof, within the American dream.
— The New York Times
The New Yorker
In the years after 1996, when President Clinton signed welfare-reform legislation, nine million women and children left the country’s welfare rolls. Though the exodus was applauded in Washington, the story of exactly how these families were faring remained, in DeParle’s words, a “national mystery.” DeParle spent these years in Milwaukee, welfare reform’s unofficial capital, studying the lives of three former welfare mothers: Jewell, Opal, and Angie. The narrative pans across generations of poverty—the women’s grandparents sharecropped cotton—while, in the present, results vary. Opal tumbles into crack addiction, but the others struggle ahead, ultimately earning nine and ten dollars an hour as nursing assistants; Angie even joins a 401(k) plan. They are welfare-reform “successes,” but their lives remain precarious. When there isn’t enough money, lights are turned off and children go hungry. “Just treading water,” Angie says, surveying her progress. “Just making it, that’s all.”
Publishers Weekly
While campaigning for president in 1992, Bill Clinton vowed to "end welfare as we know it"; four years later, the much publicized slogan evolved into a law that sent nine million women and children off the rolls. New York Times reporter DeParle takes an eye-opening look at the controversial law through the lives of three black women affected by it, all part of the same extended family, and at the shapers of the policy. He moves back and forth between the women's tough Milwaukee neighborhoods and the strategy sessions and speeches of Clinton, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and others. But the best parts of the book are its slices of life: DeParle accompanies the women on trips to the dentist, on visits to loved ones in jail, to job-training workshops and on travels to Mississippi. He offers few solutions for breaking the cycle of poverty and dependency in America, but DeParle's large-scale conclusion is that moving poor women into the workforce contributed to declines in crime, teen pregnancy and crack use. (Sept. 9) Forecast: This long-focus book will appeal to readers of David Shipler's bestselling The Working Poor and the highly praised Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, and may receive a small boost from renewed Clinton mania. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
New York Times journalist DeParle tracks three women on-and then off-welfare. "An important book," insists the publicist. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

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Penguin Publishing Group
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5.51(w) x 8.46(h) x 0.94(d)
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American Dream

Three Women, Ten Kids, And A Nation's Drive To End Welfare
By Jason DeParle

Viking Adult

ISBN: 0-670-89275-0

Chapter One

The 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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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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American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Jason DeParle is a senior writer for the New York Times, with interests in the welfare reform issues. In his book, American Dream, he follows the drive to reform the welfare state as it impacted one extended, poor family. He attempted to humanize the effects of welfare reform on individuals by tracing the family from the end of the slavery through the close of the millennium. I was first attracted to the book because of the author¿s discussion of my own family history. The family that the author followed descended from a sharecropper that was recruited by my great great uncle, Woods Eastland, to work the plantation that would later be managed by his son, U.S. Senator James Oliver Eastland. I was concerned that DeParle might present my family in an unfairly critical way. He presented the Eastland family honestly and fairly. If anything, he presented Woods Eastland as less of a character than he actually was. DeParle did a great job of personalizing the issues of welfare reform. The family that he followed was not made up of paragons of virtue. DeParle documented theft, fraud, drug use and sale, and extramarital sexual activity among the various members of the family. He also documented a family that struggled to survive in the midst of a world of chaos. He placed the various family members in the welfare reform statistics. He followed them as they responded to the various forces that shaped life and seemed out of their control. DeParle did an excellent job of discussing the welfare reform debate as it affected the individual recipients. His writing style was easy to read and engaging. His endnotes were referenced by inclusios rather than notations in the text. Placing the endnotes at the end of the chapters and numbering them sequentially would have been much easier to use. While DeParle made a good attempt to mediate his personal bias by covering both sides of the debate, he failed to ask the critical question of whether the government should be involved in taking money by force from one citizen to give to another. He focused more on how and when to redistribute wealth than whether it is a legitimate role of the government. His conclusion was the predictable one that a better safety net was necessary.
Guest More than 1 year ago
'Someone' in my life is fascinated by public policy management / evaluation and welfare reform in particular - so it seemed 'smart' to pick this book up. I admit I was surprised at the clear concise story-telling. the chronolgy of events is well woven, tying in the policy and the human faces he chose to follow. The book gives a face to the debate surrounding welfare reform and makes what could otherwise be dry policy review interesting and compelling (the someone I mentioned earlier has told me that this human element is all too often what is not taken into account). Put into chronological perspective the story of welfare reform is emotionally rich, full of dramatic reversals and its' recipients not necessarily as portrayed in the media. Seeking to debunk the myth, Deparle goes beyond the simplistic bipartisan approach and well- beyond the ¿welfare moms¿ argument. He does so from the very beginning of the book noting how Clinton¿s war cry of ¿ending welfare as we know it¿ was in all truth not only a conviction but also a quirk of fate. The book is well-balanced and highlights lesigislativ developments in parallel to the daily struggles of three women (Angela, Jewell and Opal) and illustrates their ignorance of the greater picture they are a part of. Even though they perfectly fit the stereotype which has been the rallying cry for most of the welfare debate they are ignorant of it and of its¿ implications. Not only are they ignorant but also unaware of such things and as I believe Angela puts it 'don't care' because they're not 'dependent', they're 'survivors', and indeed they are. Ultimately Deparle offers no solutions but that is not necessarily what he meant to do - rather he successfully gives a face to the debates and confronts legislation and policy with real life cases, returning the human element to the place it deserves. Deparle makes no excuses for the choices the three women make AND he makes no excuses for the creators and enactors of welfare legislature. He simply offers an inside glimpse into their reasoning or lack of it, placing both the recipients and the debate in context historically, sociologically, politically and legislatively. Offering no solutions is not a drawback here; rather it is an advantage because without a clear idea of where we came from how can we know where we are going? If we do not know where the notion of entitlement came from how can we hope to elaborate a solution that will break the pattern? I'm glad I picked it up..
Guest More than 1 year ago
A friend recommended this book. I picked it up, expecting it to be hard to read (public policy books usually are), but this was nothing like that because the author shapes the story around the lives of real people, including 3 women in Milwaukee who have been receiving public assistance. What amazed me, after reading the book, was how little changed in their lives even when 'welfare as we know it' ended. Two of them became steady workers, for the most part, but they were still poor, still struggling to buy food and pay the utilities, and still had troubles with the men in their lives.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Two minutes after cracking open 'American Dream' you realize that Jason deParle is a phenomenal writer. But far more important, he's got an incredible story to tell: the story of how welfare reform took on a momentum never before known in our country and how the changes it wrought impacted the lives of very real women and their families. In his book, deParle asks the difficult questions: Has welfare reform improved the lives of families formerly on welfare? Has the experience of children seeing their mothers going to work had a positive influence on their lives? Has outsourcing the management of caseloads to for-profit companies proven to be a success? What can be done to motivate far more men to pursue well-paying jobs and remain an integral part of their children's lives? DeParle doesn't come up with any easy answers, though he tells the story of welfare reform and its impact in a powerfully compelling way -- from an historial standpoint, from a public policy standpoint and from the personal standpoints of those who sought work after their welfare benefits ran out. What I found most compelling were the very human portraits of the women he profiles -- Angie, Jewel and Opal. I was moved, educated and motivated by this book. Definitely a must buy -- and do go and share it with your friends and family.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Emani Smart More than 1 year ago
so not a good book