2017-07-12
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.

Something about abortion made her hesitate, but survival was its own imperative: you do what you have to do. Angie bought a $350 money order and asked her cousin Adolph for a ride.

Adolph started up on the way-abortion's a sin, God don't play that-but Angie wasn't in the mood, particularly from a man. Adolph wouldn't be there to raise this child and neither would the baby's father. "Just drive and shut up," she said.

Protestors called her a "baby-killer." A counselor asked if she had considered other options. She had considered them day and night. Finally she was in the examining room, with her feet up in stirrups, when a nurse explained what would follow. She would give Angie a pain pill, wait 30 minutes, and return to dilate her. The aspiration would produce uterine cramps. To some women, it feels like labor.

Labor? Angie couldn't believe what she had heard. "Labor" brought to mind to her mind another word. Baby.

"Un-uhh," she thought. "Un-uhh!"
"Are you telling me I have to have my baby in order to kill my baby?" she said. "That's murder for real!"

Her legs came out of the stirrups. Her feet hit the floor. "Gimme my money back," she said. "I'm fittin' to be gone."

To explain how much she wanted that abortion, Angie would later resort to quadruple adverbs; she "really, really, really, really" wanted it. "My conscience just wouldn't let me," she said. She quit school. She quit the post office. Her months of depression were followed by an excruciating birth. After two years in Milwaukee, Angie was in a deeper hole than when she had arrived.

Angie at 30: Off the rolls
Angie received one of the first notices from Milwaukee's work program. Two weeks later, she found her own job. She kept a partial welfare check for a brief transition. Then, after 12 years and about $60,000, her cash welfare payments ended. She never received another.

In welfare theory, this would seem like a baccalaureate moment. After a lifetime of "dependency," she was fully, genuinely, that American hero, a working-class stiff-star of country music, socialist art, and beer ads everywhere. So what did it mean? Angie's smooth face puckered. "It means I be broke for the rest of my life!"

Angie at 31: Medical Smocks
Nursing aides do difficult, dangerous work. They get hurt twice as often as coal miners and earn less than half the pay. They traffic in infectious fluids, in blood, urine, vomit, and poop. They handle corpses. They get attacked by patients. Above all, they lift.

They lift people from beds and wheelchairs; they lift them from toilets and showers. Nearly one in six nursing aides gets injured each year. Nationally, the job pays about $7.50 an hour, and one in five nursing aides lives in poverty. About a quarter have no health insurance.

Angie liked the job. She liked it more than lugging mail and a lot more than cleaning motels. She liked the bright, clean building. She liked break-room gossip and the teamwork of patient care. She liked the residents and the stories they told, especially the nursing-home rebels, who reminded her of herself. "Ain't no telling what might come outta they mouth!" she said. While some women on welfare mocked the job as "wiping butts," Angie liked to look in the mirror and think of herself as a nurse.

The work tapped veins of empathy and imagination dormant in other parts of her life. One patient, as Angie moved to scrub her, barked a racial epithet. On the streets, that would have sent Angie's fists flying. On the ward, it made her laugh. She smiled at the frightened old woman and calmly explained that the epithet was cleaning her, "cause you can't do it yourself-so you might as well let me." Her supervisor noticed her devotion. "Angie has a sparkle," she said.

With nursing aides in short supply, recruiters wonder what motivates them. Why suffer all that lifting and pulling when fast food pays as much? One theory is they are inherently drawn to the caregivers' role, an insight Angie summoned on her own. "I think it was because of my Daddy," she volunteered one day. In her case, she hadn't taken care of him. As Roosevelt Jobe drank himself to death, he hadn't looked after her, either: he had been too drunk even to notice that his teenage daughter was pregnant.

Angie saw her father for the last time just before she moved to Milwaukee, and after a separation of several years she was shocked by his decline. They spent two tender hours together in a park, and a month later he was dead. "I felt so guilty,'' she said. "I did not do nothing for him.''

Her nursing aide's life, in a roundabout way, offered a second chance.

Angie at 33: Working but Hungry
To say Angie lived on $25,000 a year makes her life sound more forgiving than it was. Her tax credit payment came once a year and went mostly to big-ticket items, like cars and bedroom sets. Food stamps went to food. What Angie really lived on was her take-home pay, about $1,120 a month. The result was come-and-go economics: what comes, goes.

Nearly $650 went to rent and utilities. Seventy-five dollars went for household goods that food stamps wouldn't buy. Seventy-five went to groceries when the food stamps ran out. Fifty went to Newports, since Angie's body wouldn't function without a pack every other day.

What was left was about $270 a month, or $9 a day. With that, Angie had to buy the remaining stuff of her life: bus fare, haircuts, gerbil food, video games, winter coats, doctors' bills, Halloween candy, Kesha's color-guard uniform, Darrell's birthday party, and the occasional pizza supreme. It was a budget with no room for error. And a life with lots of error. "Cash money in my hands?" Angie said. "It's like the wind blows and it's gone."

Generous to a fault, Angie had let her drug-addicted cousin, Opal, move in. Opal was supposed to be helping to buy food, but she was spending her food stamps on drugs. One day Opal beat Angie's five-year-old, Darrell, to the last drop of milk. He flung himself to the floor. "What you crying for, boy?" Opal said.

"I'm hungry," he said.

"You need a good butt-whipping!" Opal screamed.

Darrell wasn't the only one in the house missing a meal. Called in to work on her 33rd birthday, Angie was broke and didn't eat all day.

Angie at 33: Evicting Family
In the middle of December, Angie and Opal had a new fight, after Opal went on another binge, accepting Angie's gift of shelter and spending her money on drugs. The house was out of groceries-again.

The next day Angie walked in Opal's room and said something she hadn't planned to say. Get out. Go! Leave within 48 hours. "Why you keep trying to use people?" Angie said.

Angie knew it was Christmas. She knew it was cold and the shelters were full. But "I ain't doing her no good here," Angie said. "She told me that a long time ago: I'm 'enabling' her-she learned that in rehab."

Angie laughed. "Shoot! Why don't your take your ass back there and learn something else?" But underneath she was as earnest as could be. "If I don't put her out, she ain't never gonna get herself together," Angie said. "I love you," she told Opal. "When you get yourself together, I'll be there for you."

Angie at 38: A Shot at the American Dream
The welfare revolution grew from the fear that the poor were mired in a culture of entitlement-stuck in a swamp of excessive demands, social due. There certainly was a culture of entitlement in American life, but it was scarcely concentrated at the bottom (as anyone following the wave of corporate scandals now knows). What really stands out about Angie is how little she felt she was owed. Not heat or lights. Not medical care. Not even three daily meals. And she scarcely complained.

In ending welfare, the country took away her single largest source of income. She didn't lobby or sue; she didn't march or riot. She made her way against the odds into wearying, underpaid jobs. And that does now entitle her to "a shot at the American Dream" more promising than the one she has yet received.

One night, Angie and I stayed up late talking about what her work had meant to her. She was propped up in bed with a beer. Great heaps of stuff spilled everywhere: report cards, pay stubs, unopened bills, CDs, an iron, mounds of dirty clothes. In the hours between midnight and dawn, she found her sacred space, turning the jumble of junk and a flickering TV into a makeshift sanctuary.

The kitchen clock flashed "88:88." In the real world, it was nearly 3:00 a.m. and Angie's alarm clock would soon drag her cussing from her bed. She wasn't betting that a low-wage job would prove her salvation. But by the time the sun rose over Milwaukee, she would be at the nursing home, saying she was broke and tired and desperate for a little sleep. Then she would get someone dressed and ready for the day.

Angie wasn't one to boast, but that much made her proud. "I work," she said.