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American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive To End Welfare




Purchase "American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive To End Welfare"

See Jason DeParle at Politics and Prose, Sept. 17, 2004 at 7 p.m.

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 résumé 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." She pictured her abridged frame draped in nursing whites and started to play with the words. "Nursing assistant…assisting a nurse…working in a hospital." Until the class began, Angie didn’t realize that most nursing aides did scut work in nursing homes, a revelation that stole some of her excitement. ("Wiping butts" is how lots of welfare recipients described it.) She also felt intimidated to be back in a classroom, a place where she had known only failure. The bus stop was frigid in the depths of December. The blood pressure cuff gave her grief. More than half her classmates gave up. But if stubbornness was the stuff of many of her problems, it was also the start of her solutions. She forced herself to show up every day, and she was so proud at her graduation she had Jewell bring the kids. She went out that night to celebrate at a bar and started talking with the deejay.

Angie liked the class more than the work. She had understood, in a theoretical way, the physical strain involved: the lifting and pulling, the washing and feeding, the business of bedpans. But once she started at a nursing home, the sadness of it all set in. "I don’t want to find no dead person!" was all she could think. She lasted eight days. Angie stayed home for a few months, then caught another break. She had thrown in an application at the post office, and an offer came through. The post office! A job for life! People look at you with respect when you work at the post office! It wasn’t what she thought. She wasn’t a full-fledged unionized worker, but a temporary employee at $6 an hour with no benefits or security. She didn’t even work in the main post office. She caught a van to an airport annex, where she spent her time double-checking the presorted mail. All the same, it was a foot in the door, and she liked the routine. Since it was second-shift work, she could stay out late with the deejay and still have time to sleep. The welfare office didn’t know she was working, so she kept her full benefits. Two more friends from Chicago had moved into the compound, which felt like a cross between a kibbutz and a sorority house; there was always someone to talk to or babysit the kids. Angie felt sufficiently good about herself to enroll in a GED class. A year after she arrived in Milwaukee, indigent and effectively widowed, she was reassembling a life.

The first sign of trouble was the Vienna sausage. The second was the naps. She’d drag herself to class, then stop by her girlfriend’s house to munch potted pork and sleep on the couch. As the mound of empty weenie tins grew, so did her girlfriend’s suspicions. "You need a pregnancy test," her friend said. Angie knew she wasn’t pregnant. She had ditched the deejay months ago. She couldn’t be pregnant. She had just had her period and she was taking birth control pills. She better not be pregnant. Von, her youngest child, just started school, and she wasn’t going back to diapers. "I ain’t," she said. "You is," said her friend. "You crazy!" Angie said. In November 1992, just after Clinton won the election, her friend ran an errand at a clinic= Along for the ride, Angie took a pregnancy test just to prove her wrong. "Miss Jobe, I need to speak with you," the nurse began. Unh-uh, Angie thought. Unh-uhhh! She drank for a week and cried for a month. Then she quit the postal job. When you’re too depressed to get out of bed, there’s no sorting the mail.

Sorting the mail didn’t cross Jewell’s mind when she arrived in Milwaukee, no longer a girl yet not quite grown. Neither did making beds, mopping floors, frying chickens, or any of the other jobs she could land. Her adult work history consisted of a few months locked in the cashier’s booth at an all-night Amoco station. Jobs weren’t something that Jewell thought much about. Babies were.

Unlike Angie, Jewell was delighted to be pregnant. It didn’t matter that her first son’s father was long gone or that the new baby’s father was in jail. Babies made Jewell feel alive. Like lots of girls who have a baby in high school, Jewell had gotten pregnant on purpose, thinking a child would bring her something to love. Unlike most, Jewell had found the theory worked. She loved everything about her first son, Terrell, from the moment he was born. His new baby smell. His miniature clothes. Even his middle-of-the-night cries. Ghetto life requires a hard face, but babies let Jewell smile. She went into labor in December 1991, two months after she arrived in Milwaukee. It was the middle of the night, but soon everyone in the compound was shouting. Angie stayed behind to watch the kids, while another friend rode with Jewell in the ambulance. By breakfast, Jewell had a second son, Tremmell. A few weeks later, Jewell swathed him against the Lake Michigan wind, got back on the bus, and carried him into the Cook County Jail, where father and son caught their first glimpse of each other through a partition of bulletproof glass. Jewell enjoyed showing Tony his son, but it was starting to sink in that Tony wasn’t coming home.

Thrown into troubled waters, Angie and Jewell navigated in contrasting ways. Angie chugged ahead like a rusty tug, forming a wake of jettisoned plans: she was going to be a nurse or a postal clerk; she was going to get her high school degree; she was going to figure out what God wants of her; she was going to stop crying about Greg. Jewell was a sailboat without a sail, adrift with no plan at all. Passivity offered protection; when you don’t get your hopes up, there’s less to let you down. The new baby was almost four months old when one of her younger brother’s friends floated into town—a wild, wiry street kid, barely out of his teens, whom everyone knew as Lucky. Or as one of the gang later said, "His name is Lucky but he’s not." Lucky liked to drink, and drinking made him talk. He covered Jewell in verbal rainbows—Technicolor pledges of devotion, mixed with white lies and purple jokes. "Jewell! You want me to rob a bank? I’ll rob it for you, Jewell!" "Jewell! I been wanting to talk to you ever since we was in grammar school! Man, you had a big ol’ butt!" "Jewell! Can you be my lady?" They danced. She wasn’t so much smitten as amused and lonelier than she knew. In Lucky, the court found its inebriated jester, and Jewell found a man.

Communal living got to Jewell—the noise, the gossip, the lack of privacy. She and Lucky moved away for a few months, but Lucky had problems with the neighborhood gang and they raced back after he got shot in the hand. Bored, restless, putting on weight, Jewell did something wildly out of character. She volunteered for JOBS, the same welfare-to-work program that had summoned Angie. "Dear Jewell M Reed," came the reply. "Please read the rights and responsibilities pamphlet." The dour bureaucratic response set the tone for what followed. Her case got handed to an inner-city group, the Opportunities Industrialization Center, whose renown lay more in winning state contracts than in finding poor people jobs. First she got parked in a motivation class. Then a caseworker urged her to forget about work and pursue her GED, though Jewell insisted that she wanted to make money. Finally she got herself referred to a course for nursing assistants, like the one that Angie had taken. She waited for two months, then learned that it was canceled. "They don’t ever do much of nothing except take you through a lot of hassles," Jewell said. It was the last time she asked the welfare office for anything but a check.

Home soon after to visit Chicago, Jewell was catching up on family news when she learned that one of her favorite cousins was having problems. She had had another baby, split up with her husband, and moved in with her mother. Nearly a decade had passed since Jewell had seen Opal Caples, though as kids in the projects the two had been close. Even the big-city names chosen by their rural-born mothers had framed them as natural friends: Ruthie Mae and Hattie Mae had Opal and Jewell. Jewell wasn’t one to act on impulse, but something made her pick up the phone, and the conversation clicked. Opal said she had three young daughters with rhyming names: Sierra, Kierra, and Tierra. "F’real?" Jewell said. "Yup!" Jewell had two preschool sons with rhyming names: Terrell and Tremmell. "F’real?" Opal said. "Yup!" Opal was drawing welfare, too, and her dilemma was the same one Jewell had faced: without help, she couldn’t afford a place of her own in Chicago. Living with her churchy mother left Opal feeling caged. Jewell said her landlady had an empty apartment for $325, and welfare would pay more than $600. "Yahoo!" Opal said. "I’m coming."

Jewell didn’t take her seriously—no one makes a decision like that in a few minutes on the phone. Yet something about Opal had always set her apart. She was probably the smartest of Jewell’s childhood friends and definitely the wildest. Expelled from not one but two public schools, Opal, unlike Angie and Jewell, went on to graduate and even did a semester of community college. While Jewell didn’t spend much time mulling life beyond the ghetto, Opal worked worldly allusions into her conversation. Her husband was so stuck on himself "he thinks he’s the Prince of Wales." When their mothers made them go job hunting as teens, Opal got all the offers. "I have a personality that attracts people to me—I do!" she said. "Lotta people tell me that." With education, experience, and a gift for making friends, Opal could leave a welfare office voted most likely to succeed. But there was something that neither her caseworkers nor cousins knew. Opal had been smoking cocaine. A little at first, then a lot—off and on during her second pregnancy and constantly during her third. One reason she was living at home is that she had smoked up the rent money and fled before her husband found his stuff on the street. Opal’s mother didn’t want the extended family to know, and Opal wasn’t about to tell. Among the hopes she held for Milwaukee was the hope of getting clean.

When she and Jewell met at the station there was no time for a reunion scene. They piled the kids and suitcases aboard and headed off for the two-hour ride up I-94. When Angie got home from work that night, she found a new resident of the compound—a short, dark, beguiling woman who told riotous stories of her life’s escapades and was quick to swap Newports, insults, and beer. "That’s my cousin!" Angie and Opal each would insist from then on. Biologically, they’re not related (though through Greg their kids are), but that’s a technicality that Angie indignantly dismissed. "What you mean?" she said. "We ’bout as biological as it gets!"

A few days later, a book of Jewell’s food stamps disappeared. Soon Opal disappeared, too. "Damn, she must a met somebody already," Jewell thought. Her mother had heard a rumor that Opal was using drugs, but Jewell paid her no mind. Her mother said all kinds of crazy things. For years, her mother had said that the government was going to take welfare away. Jewell figured that was just something mothers liked to say.

Now and then at a social event, someone asks me what I do. If I don’t feel like talking, I tell the truth. I say I cover "social policy" for The New York Times, and the conversation moves on. In a more adventurous mood, I tell the truth in a different way. I say I cover "welfare." That keeps the table boiling: say the word welfare, and there’s no telling what might bubble up. Bill Clinton started one of those conversations on the fly in a campaign season, and what bubbled up was a free-for-all—and an "end" to welfare—more radical than anyone had imagined. This book represents a seven-year effort to find out what happened next.

Though I had spent years watching the welfare bill evolve, I realized why I found the subject so compelling as I listened, in the summer of 1996, to the final hours of Senate debate. The senators were talking about welfare the way people talk of it at dinner tables, in terms so ideological as to be virtually religious. They were talking of how their parents and grandparents had made it. (Or hadn’t. Or couldn’t.) They were talking of how their communities would care for the poor. (Or didn’t. Or wouldn’t.) At times, it seemed that the very idea of America was on trial. We live in a country rich beyond measure, yet one with unconscionable ghettos. We live in a country where anyone can make it; yet generation after generation, some families don’t. To argue about welfare is to argue about why. I’ll be pleased if this story challenges, and informs, the assumptions on both sides as much as it has challenged my own. "Ideas are interesting—people are boring," a welfare expert once told me. Ideas are interesting. But I proceeded on a broader faith, that what has occurred in the lives of the welfare poor is more interesting than either camp has assumed.

The story focuses on three women in one extended family, inseparable at the start but launched on differing arcs. Perhaps no three people can stand for 9 million. But with Angie’s gumption, Jewell’s reticence, and Opal’s manipulative charm, the threesome cover a great deal of ground. A catalog of their collective lives would include everything from crack house to 401(k), with results that roughly reflect the experiences of welfare families nationwide. Two grabbed a toehold on the bottom of the employment ladder. One wound up with a journey through the new welfare system more tragic than I would have guessed possible.

Since welfare is a subject filled with biases, the reader may welcome a word about mine. At the time the president signed the law—the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996—I had been writing about inner-city life for more than a decade. Inevitably, I had opinions. I thought the harshness of the low-wage economy and the turmoil of poor people’s lives required a federal safety net, not one torn by arbitrary time limits and handed to the states. I also thought the most constructive thing to do as a reporter was to clean my mental slate. With the welfare system starting over, I tried to do the same. To my relief, the first years brought reassurance: more work, less welfare, falling poverty rates. No signs of children "sleeping on grates," as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan had famously warned. Surely the vibrant economy helped, and tougher tests awaited. Still, after years on the poverty beat, there was something truly exotic to report: good news.

At the same time, I felt uneasy with the triumphal claims ringing through public life. The "greatest social policy change in this nation in sixty years," is how Tommy Thompson put it, after leaving his job as governor of Wisconsin to become the secretary of Health and Human Services. The Wall Street Journal did him one better: "the greatest advance for America’s poor since the rise of capitalism." The very phrase "welfare-to-work" brims with implication: rising incomes, inspired kids, more hopeful lives. But the successes I witnessed were never so clear. Paradoxically, the closer I got to the welfare story, the less central welfare appeared. "Did it work?" people would ask about the landmark law. "That’s your crazy stuff," Angie said, insisting the law was no landmark to her. "We don’t be thinking ’bout that!"

In assembling this account, I have relied on years of discussions with the main characters. With their permission, I have also examined a decade’s worth of welfare and earnings records and talked with others in their lives: relatives, boyfriends, caseworkers, bosses, and friends. Court records, tax returns, school transcripts, and letters have enhanced my understanding, and a trail of genealogical material extends the family history back six generations. In launching the project, I imagined, if only half-consciously, that it would follow a sleek narrative line of underdogs against the world. It is that story, but also a more complicated one—of adversity variously overcome, compounded, or merely endured. In that way, too, it embodies the story of welfare writ large.

Some readers may wonder why I focused on an African American family when nationally blacks and whites each accounted for about 40 percent of the rolls. I first chose to focus on Milwaukee, the epicenter of the antiwelfare crusade, and, as it happened, nearly 70 percent of the city’s caseload was black. As the drive to end welfare began, the paradigmatic Milwaukee recipient was a black woman from Chicago whose mother or grandmother had started life in a Mississippi cotton field, a description that fits Angie, Opal, and Jewell. At the same time, there are advantages to seeing the rise and fall of welfare through African American eyes. Given their share of the national population, black families were more than six times as likely as whites to receive a welfare check. Among long-term recipients, the racial imbalance was even more pronounced: nearly seven of ten long-term recipients were African American. Considering our national history, that shouldn’t be a surprise; for more than three centuries blacks were barred by violence and law from the full benefits of American life.

The story that follows is rooted in the racial past, a past much less distant than I first supposed. In understanding where it began, I got help from a regal woman named Hattie Mae Crenshaw. She is Jewell’s mother, grandmother to Angie’s kids, and an elder cousin whom Opal regards as an aunt. She was born beside a Mississippi bayou in 1937, in a shack without electricity or running water. By the time she reached late middle age, a job as a private nursing aide had carried her by Concorde to Paris. In between, she had lived much of the country’s welfare history. Barely sixty when I met her, Hattie Mae wasn’t old. But she was old enough to remember chopping cotton to pay the plantation store. She settled into her story from a white-tiger love seat in Jewell’s living room. Family history bores Jewell; she left the room to do her nails. Hattie Mae smiled as she began: "I growed up on Senator Jim Eastland’s plantation in Doddsville, Mississippi. That’s when black peoples was just beginning to come out of slavery." Patient with my puzzled looks, Hattie Mae talked on, pointing me toward welfare’s forgotten prequel.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from AMERICAN DREAM: Three Women, Ten Kids, And A Nation’s Drive To End Welfare by Jason DeParle, Copyright © Jason DeParle, 2004

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