With tougher rules and a demand for "personal responsibility," the 1996 welfare law sent 3 million women and children streaming from the rolls. Jason DeParle spent seven years following three Milwaukee families caught in the odyssey. His new book, "American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare," charts their spiritual and economic challenges. Here DeParle tells the story of Angela Jobe as she moves from welfare to work.

"America's biggest problem today is that too many of our people never get a shot at the American Dream."--Bill Clinton

Angie at 25: Starting a New Life
The month Bill Clinton announced he was running for president, Angela Jobe stepped off a Greyhound bus in Milwaukee to start a new life. She was 25 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 4-foot-11 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 laugh, the transcript may sound off-putting. Up close, her habit of excitable swearing came off as something akin to charm. "I just express myself so accurately!" she laughed.

The cascade of off-color commentary, flowing along side 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 17, and 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 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 started poems about their efforts to discern God's will. "I'm tired/Of trying to understand/What God wants of me," she wrote.

Worried that was too irreverent, Angie substituted "the world" for "God" and hid the unfinished page in a bag. Stories of street fights Angie was happy to share, but the bag was so private hardly anyone knew it existed. "Don't you know I like looking mean?" Angie said. "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."

In welfare terms, Angie would pass as paragon of "dependency:" unmarried, uneducated, and unemployed. But Angie never thought of herself as depending on anything. She saw herself 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. She also relied on her children's father Greg, who was making "beaucoup money" selling drugs. His arrest, in the summer of 1991, hit her with the force of a sudden death. Life with Greg was the only life she knew. She had lived alone or raised children by herself. Without Greg, she couldn't even pay the bills: rent alone was more than her entire check. In Milwaukee, the economics were reversed. You could sign up for welfare, get an apartment, and have money left over. Higher welfare, lower rent-that's all Angie knew about Milwaukee when she stepped off the bus.

She didn't know that Bill Clinton was running for president with a pledge to "end welfare as we know it." She didn't know that the pledge would send 9 million women and children streaming from the rolls. She certainly didn't know that she and her kids would be among the first to leave.

Angie at 26: An Unwanted Pregnancy
By the end of her first year in Milwaukee, Angie was feeling proud. She had found a temp job at the post office and enrolled in a GED class. She was still on welfare, but working and studying and thinking of a future. She couldn't say just when her life in Milwaukee had come together. But she knew when it fell apart: the moment the clinic said she was pregnant.

She went home and cried for a month. She was much more upset to be pregnant at 26 than she had been at 17. Then she had Greg. Now she had no one; she had already broken up with her Milwaukee boyfriend. With the momentum of job and school behind her, she just couldn't see returning to bottles and diapers.