2017-07-12
On his way to the White House in 1992, Bill Clinton vowed to "end welfare as we know it," lending hope to policymakers and legislators who believed the system, far from helping the poor, did them a disservice.

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.

Her new life as a worker also hasn't made her a "role model" for her kids, as many supporters of the law had hoped. In their most idealistic moments, the law's boosters argued that once women like Angie left welfare for work, their kids would be inspired to buckle down in school. But Angie's kids actually missed more school days after she left the rolls than in the preceding years-in part, I think, because she had less time and energy to monitor and help them. Adolescents often do a bit worse once their mothers go to work.

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.

What is her own moral system like?
Angie's real ethos is just survival. That's both a blessing and a bane. It's a blessing because it reflects her great resilience. I've seen her go to sleep at 3:00 a.m. after a 16-hour day, and get up a few hours later and get back to work.

But while her pride in "surviving" propels her on, it can also hold her back. Surviving is different from thriving. Surviving implies a kind of low expectations. Part of what's missing from Angie's life story is a sense of greater possibility, for her or her kids. The title of my book comes from a speech by Bill Clinton in which he says too many Americans never get a shot at the American Dream. In Angie's case, she didn't even dream it.

But I found her to have a profound moral sensibility. I think she didn't like to discuss it, for fear it would make her look weak. She often does things against her immediate self-interest for moral reasons. One example involves abortion. By the time Angie was 26, she already had 3 kids on welfare and got pregnant with a fourth. She desperately wanted not to be pregnant again, to the point where she went to the abortion clinic, paid her money, and got up on the table to start the procedure before deciding she just couldn't go through with it. She felt it would be like killing her baby. She went home to have another child she couldn't afford.

She also takes care of her cousin, Opal, who has a bad problem with crack cocaine. Angie lures her out of a crack house and lets her move in with four kids--for a year! Angie could barely take care of her own four kids, and now she has Opal stealing from her so she can buy drugs. Angie spent months and months trying to discern the right thing to do before she finally made Opal leave. "If I don't put her out, she ain't never gonna get herself together," Angie told me. "I love you," she told Opal on the day of the eviction. "When you get yourself together, I'll be there for you." That's certainly evidence of a moral awareness in her struggles.

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