With Clinton's rise, Jason DeParle, a senior writer for The New York Times, began tracking the fortunes of three Milwaukee families caught between political battles in Washington and the facts of life in poverty. One of the stories he tells in his new book, "American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare," charts the spiritual and economic challenges of Angie Jobe, a former welfare mother, as welfare reform goes into effect. We talked to him recently about Angie and the morality of welfare reform.
American policy in regard to the poor has been guided by two sometimes opposing moral principles: individual responsibility and the idea that we're all responsible for one another. Was the 1996 Welfare Reform Act a case of individual responsibility winning out?
Largely but not entirely. Bill Clinton's original formulation of welfare reform combined the twin themes of opportunity and responsibility. The idea was "we'll do more for you, and you do more for yourself." The Speaker of the House at the time the law was passed, Newt Gingrich, truncated it to "do more for yourself." Most of the main provisions of the bill, like time limits and work requirements, followed in this vein.
But there was a parallel expansion of services that did amount to progress on the "opportunity" side. The most important was the vast expansion of the earned-income tax credit-an opaque name for a program that funnels $30 billion a year straight into the pockets of low-wage workers. It's essentially a wage subsidy. It can turn a $6-an-hour job into one worth nearly $9-an-hour, and it's been a key to the well-being of women leaving welfare.
Likewise, there were large expansions in child care, and health insurance for low-wage workers. The media didn't cover these programs as much as they did the strict provisions of the new system, but they made crucial contributions.
Welfare reform presented a dilemma for the religious left. They felt like it was their obligation to oppose it thinking it hurt the poor. Did the religious left have it wrong? How?
I was among those who worried that tough new welfare laws would increase material hardship and deprivation. That didn't happen, in part because the economy boomed, and in part because these new services arose, like childcare and wage subsidies.
But it also didn't happen because low-skilled single mothers proved more capable and resilient than lots of us feared. Angie, the woman in my book, "American Dream," had been on welfare for 12 years. She had four kids, and no high school degree. She was the very definition of a hard case. Yet a few months after the new law passed, she had become a full-time, steady worker. That's not an unusual story. She was much more employable than past experience suggested.
Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the main opponent of the law, used to describe the welfare population in terms that largely suggested they were helpless to fend for themselves. "To be dependent, is to hang," he would say. But Angie never saw herself as "depending" on anything. She saw herself as a scrappy, self-reliant woman who did what it took to get by. She saw herself as a survivor.
The bad news is that Angie's job paid so little she didn't advance much, if at all, economically. She had her lights shut off three times in as many years; went hungry on many occasions; and lost her health insurance for several years.
How did she see herself, in terms of these ideals of individual responsibility and the responsibility of the community?
Angie is remarkably free of self-pity. She has no sense of victimhood. So she's unlikely to say that her problems are the responsibility of the community. But she wouldn't frame them as failings of personal responsibility, either. The "opportunity" and "responsibility" framework isn't one that would come naturally to her.
What is Angie's religious stance? Does she believe God cares for her?
Angie doesn't talk much about her faith, and she's doesn't go to church. [But] I think Angie thinks more about God than she likes to say. Early in the book, I quote a poem she wrote: "I'm tired/of trying to understand/what God wants of me." Afraid that was too irreverent, she switched the word "God" to "the world," as though she was wary of provoking God's wrath. She spent 9 years in parochial school and her mother goes to church Wednesday nights and all-day Sunday. Something rubbed off. A lifetime of poverty and struggle hasn't depleted the wellsprings of charity in her soul.