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American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare

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Bill Clinton's drive to "end welfare" sent 9 million women and children streaming from the rolls. In this masterful work, New York Times reporter and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist Jason DeParle cuts between the mean streets of Milwaukee and the corridors of Washington to produce the definitive account. As improbable as fiction, and equally fast-paced, this classic of li Bill Clinton's drive to "end welfare" sent 9 million women and children streaming from the rolls. In this masterful work, New York Times reporter and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist Jason DeParle cuts between the mean streets of Milwaukee and the corridors of Washington to produce the definitive account. As improbable as fiction, and equally fast-paced, this classic of literary journalism has captured the acclaim of the Left and Right. At the heart of the story are three cousins, inseparable at the start but launched on differing arcs. Leaving welfare, Angie puts her heart in her work. Jewell bets on an imprisoned man. Opal guards a tragic secret that threatens her kids and her life. DeParle traces back their family history six generations to slavery, and weaves poor people, politicians, reformers, and rogues into a spellbinding epic. At times, the very idea of America seemed on trial: we live in a country where anyone can make it, yet generation after generation some families don't. Washington Post: "Riveting... like a searing novel of urban realism - Theodore Dreiser comes to Milwaukee." Chicago Tribune: "Sweeping scope and dramatic detail worthy of Charles Dickens."


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Bill Clinton's drive to "end welfare" sent 9 million women and children streaming from the rolls. In this masterful work, New York Times reporter and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist Jason DeParle cuts between the mean streets of Milwaukee and the corridors of Washington to produce the definitive account. As improbable as fiction, and equally fast-paced, this classic of li Bill Clinton's drive to "end welfare" sent 9 million women and children streaming from the rolls. In this masterful work, New York Times reporter and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist Jason DeParle cuts between the mean streets of Milwaukee and the corridors of Washington to produce the definitive account. As improbable as fiction, and equally fast-paced, this classic of literary journalism has captured the acclaim of the Left and Right. At the heart of the story are three cousins, inseparable at the start but launched on differing arcs. Leaving welfare, Angie puts her heart in her work. Jewell bets on an imprisoned man. Opal guards a tragic secret that threatens her kids and her life. DeParle traces back their family history six generations to slavery, and weaves poor people, politicians, reformers, and rogues into a spellbinding epic. At times, the very idea of America seemed on trial: we live in a country where anyone can make it, yet generation after generation some families don't. Washington Post: "Riveting... like a searing novel of urban realism - Theodore Dreiser comes to Milwaukee." Chicago Tribune: "Sweeping scope and dramatic detail worthy of Charles Dickens."

30 review for American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare

  1. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    It took me two weeks to read this book, which is a bit unusual. I kept putting it down at first, not because it's bad, but because it was bothering me so much. American Dream is a book about public policy, but it's told in a narrative fashion. The author--the 'poverty reporter' for the New York Times, traces the lives of three young women living in Milwaukee during the 1990s during the end of the federal welfare program. I've previously read a very comprehensive policy book on anti-poverty progr It took me two weeks to read this book, which is a bit unusual. I kept putting it down at first, not because it's bad, but because it was bothering me so much. American Dream is a book about public policy, but it's told in a narrative fashion. The author--the 'poverty reporter' for the New York Times, traces the lives of three young women living in Milwaukee during the 1990s during the end of the federal welfare program. I've previously read a very comprehensive policy book on anti-poverty programs in America (America's Struggle Against Poverty in the 20th Century by James T. Patterson)so I was familiar with the history of these programs. What was so captivating about this book was the author's use of real people in telling the story of urban poverty in our country, and his ability to humanize the triumphs and tragedies of our welfare system. The story follows the lives of three cousins, all female, all unmarried, all with children (ten kids all together; I lost track of how many different dads) who move from Chicago to Milwaukee, WI because the welfare benefits were more generous. The author traces their family back to a common ancestor, a slave in Mississippi. The next generations were sharecroppers who lived in circumstances not unlike slavery, until the parents of the young women migrate north, and have their own children, including the young women whose lives the author documents--Opal, Jewell, and Angie. To say that the relationships between the young moms and their various family members, children, boyfriends, and the fathers of their kids are convoluted is an understatement. I could barely keep track of who was who. As the story of their lives unfolds, the author also tells the story of Washington's big Clinton-era program to end welfare (then called AFDIC) and change it into 'work-fare'(TANF). There were several points that struck me: First, the author makes the generational gravity of poverty very apparent. In other words, those who are born black and poor have great difficulty moving out of poverty and into the working class. The sheer weight of their family problems, their oppressive neighborhoods, their health issues, and the complete lack of role models, is astonishing. Second, the women the author follows make incredibly stupid choices. They are not unintelligent people by any means, but they just do remarkably dumb shit that makes their lives so much harder. Even when presented with opportunities for success, they can't seem to get off their asses long enough to grasp at them. And--let me put this as mildly as I can--their parenting skills leave a bit to be desired. Finally, the TANF program itself is a joke. The federal government wasted tens of millions of dollars on the states by issuing block grants that were pissed away by unscrupulous private contractors who had every incentive to ignore the needs of their very vulnerable clients. Anyone who tells you we need to privatize Medicare should read this book; these people make Blackwater seem ethical. This was a long, complex book that I kept walking away from because it both horrified and angered me in equal measure. No matter what the government did--write checks, force people to get jobs, hand out rent assistance, health care, food stamps, education, training--it made very little difference in the lives of these women and their children. As the author put it (paraphrase): before welfare reform, these people where poor, living in dangerous neighborhoods without adequate food or medical care. After welfare reform, these people were poor, living in dangerous neighborhoods without adequate food or medical care. It makes you want to bang your head against a wall. In the fifty years since Johnson's Great Society programs and the War on Poverty began, we have spent trillions of dollars on programs of social uplift. The poverty rate today is just about the same as it was back in the 1960s. President Bush--and now President Obama--were on the right track with the Faith Based Initiative (started by Bush, greatly expanded by Obama). That, to me, is the way to take on poverty: help those who are motivated by their faith to make direct, personal contact with people who live in horrific poverty and personalize this whole thing. Yes, still help out with rent and food and medical care; that's essential...but don't leave it up to some government social worker to try and heal the damage caused by poverty. That does not work. Maybe nothing will work. A remarkable, thought-provoking, and difficult book. Much to reflect on.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Lobstergirl

    This book - about the effects on three Milwaukee families of Clinton's drive to radically alter welfare in the 1990s by making women work - grew on me. I think perhaps it could be better organized; it flops around chronologically and topically, and the subject matter would be better served by something more linear. The book focuses on three women, but there are enough relatives, ancestors, husbands, boyfriends, lovers, and crack addict buddies that clarity and simplicity in the narrative become This book - about the effects on three Milwaukee families of Clinton's drive to radically alter welfare in the 1990s by making women work - grew on me. I think perhaps it could be better organized; it flops around chronologically and topically, and the subject matter would be better served by something more linear. The book focuses on three women, but there are enough relatives, ancestors, husbands, boyfriends, lovers, and crack addict buddies that clarity and simplicity in the narrative become very important. It also seems to be inevitable in books written by middle class white men about poor black women that something will make you cringe. For me, it was "Angie had a pretty milk-chocolate face and a fireplug build...." I think he's just trying to be literary there, but it screams white man trying to write non-condescendingly about a fat black woman. If there's one other flaw it's the overly journalistic style (Jason DeParle is a New York Times reporter). I kept comparing it to Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family, a narrative I found stunning and extremely affecting, and finding it wanting. Nonetheless I found it an interesting book, compelling in its subject matter, with worthwhile conclusions about poverty, welfare, families, and social policy. (I should add that there is nothing to suggest DeParle felt or acted condescending towards these women. On the contrary, he became very involved in their lives, did huge favors for them like driving them three hours to visit an imprisoned father, hugged their children, was hugely sympathetic to their plights, etc.)

  3. 4 out of 5

    Larry Bassett

    I have been a welfare worker in 1969 and 2007. This book is true to life. My assessment of the lying/cheating aspect of welfare based on my experience as a worker is this: Welfare is like gambling. You can give incorrect information or omit to give some required bit of information. If you are not "caught," you will get more money. Welfare is usually below subsistence level. If you are a mother and your children are suffering (whatever your definition is), you might elect to withhold or provide fa I have been a welfare worker in 1969 and 2007. This book is true to life. My assessment of the lying/cheating aspect of welfare based on my experience as a worker is this: Welfare is like gambling. You can give incorrect information or omit to give some required bit of information. If you are not "caught," you will get more money. Welfare is usually below subsistence level. If you are a mother and your children are suffering (whatever your definition is), you might elect to withhold or provide false information to increase your benefits and alleviate some of that suffering. Or the rules might be very complex but people learn the "right" answer to qualify for welfare. Caseloads are usually huge. Verification of information is often lacking. Even when it is determined that someone has given incorrect information (it may not even be considered cheating; maybe just a mistake or a misunderstanding), the penalty may be to be required to repay the erroneous amount. So gambling that you might win (for a lot of reasons) and that (usually) the penalty is to repay, leaving you with the amount you would have received if you had not gambled. So you might get caught. But there is a good chance you will not be caught. And even if you are caught the penalty might not be that severe. What amazes me is that more people don't lie. Or maybe I just never figured out how many were really lying.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Jcigna

    This book told the tale of Three Welfare Mothers right before welfare reform. What I learned from this book is to not extrapolate from their tales what it means to be on welfare and a mother. They are not characters, they are three individuals who don't represent anybody but themselves. DeParle does a fantastic job at describing and humanizing three women who were demonized by congress and pundits; the archetypes which led to welfare's upheaval. But we must realize that they were not the normal This book told the tale of Three Welfare Mothers right before welfare reform. What I learned from this book is to not extrapolate from their tales what it means to be on welfare and a mother. They are not characters, they are three individuals who don't represent anybody but themselves. DeParle does a fantastic job at describing and humanizing three women who were demonized by congress and pundits; the archetypes which led to welfare's upheaval. But we must realize that they were not the normal women on welfare. Most don't have drug problem, nor do they cheat the system. I wish that he had done a better job of letting the reader know this. Instead they must decide how they view welfare recipients.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Amber

    Oh man, was I conflicted about this book. It is intricately researched and reported, and I learned a ton about the trajectory of welfare reform, which I was too young to remember as it happened. And the author does a fantastic job following the lives of three women on welfare in Milwaukee, weaving their stories with changes in both national and state-level policy. Despite how well constructed it is, though, the book ultimately disappointed me. In the scheme of Americans, I'm probably slightly lef Oh man, was I conflicted about this book. It is intricately researched and reported, and I learned a ton about the trajectory of welfare reform, which I was too young to remember as it happened. And the author does a fantastic job following the lives of three women on welfare in Milwaukee, weaving their stories with changes in both national and state-level policy. Despite how well constructed it is, though, the book ultimately disappointed me. In the scheme of Americans, I'm probably slightly left of center, but as I read it, I felt like I must be the most conservative person to have read this book (alas, probably not true, the point is more about how it felt). The author has a real dismissiveness toward conservatives and Republicans, which is one thing, but as well toward their ideas and their motives, which really grates. Worse, this bias ultimately drives the author's policy conclusions. He dismissively points out that welfare reform doesn't meaningfully improve outcomes for poor women, and cites this as an example of the policy's failings. But I have completely the opposite read--welfare reform saved the state however many billions of dollars, and didn't make things meaningfuly worse for poor women. That's less of a humanitarian success, but it's a huge policy improvement. The author's sympathy for the women on welfare, and their backgrounds and current conditions, is obviously genuine and heartfelt. But he does not grapple with one of the central tensions highlighted in the book--what is the state's obligation to help--and how--indigent drug addicts? I suppose ultimately what I was looking for was more a book that combined an evaluation of policy with stories that exemplify the changes. Whereas this book is one man's treatise--based on strongly held, prior beliefs, that aren't really re-evaluted--on how America has left poor people behind. Which, incidentally, I don't really disagree with. But the evidence for that case isn't really presented in this book, and too many of the author's viewpoints are taken as obviously true. But it is, nonetheless, an interesting read.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Anjali

    I picked this book off my reading list for Bryan Stevenson's Race, Poverty, & Criminal Justice class. I don't usually read non-fiction, but I may make future exceptions for books recommended by Bryan Stevenson. Jason DeParle is a journalist who covered welfare for the NY Times. The book describes the political events surrounding the passage of the welfare bill in the 1990s and follows its effect on three Black women who were receiving welfare at the time. I found the political sections kind of bo I picked this book off my reading list for Bryan Stevenson's Race, Poverty, & Criminal Justice class. I don't usually read non-fiction, but I may make future exceptions for books recommended by Bryan Stevenson. Jason DeParle is a journalist who covered welfare for the NY Times. The book describes the political events surrounding the passage of the welfare bill in the 1990s and follows its effect on three Black women who were receiving welfare at the time. I found the political sections kind of boring, but the descriptions and stories of the women really came to life and made up for that. They reminded me of people I know and have known, and the book didn't shy away from showing the real weight of poverty on Black women in American cities. I also really appreciated that the women's story started with their great-grandparents and slavery and the sharecropping South. While I got tired of following long chapters about every political move, the interactions between policy and the real world were actually very interesting and educational for me. The message wasn't exactly as progressive as I would make it, and there were times when I really wanted DeParle to engage with his characters and help them reflect and organize and empower themselves, but he's a journalist, and I think he did what a journalist does. It worked for him overall. Because I have a weakness for hilarious book review hyperbole, I'd like to point out that the blurbs on the back cover compare DeParle to Theodore Dreiser AND Charles Dickens AND call the book "the Les Miserables of our day." I'm even more impressed with how likable this book was considering DeParle must have an ego the size of Wisconsin.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Abby

    A detailed, if somewhat outdated, account of welfare and welfare reform/dissolution. The author has been covering poverty in the U.S. for the New York Times for years (15?), and therefore has personalized and contextualized knowledge of the issues. This book alternates between the politics of welfare and the stories of 3 Midwestern women, which is a really nice method for humanizing the policies and explaining how these women are subject to economic forces beyond their control. The stories of the A detailed, if somewhat outdated, account of welfare and welfare reform/dissolution. The author has been covering poverty in the U.S. for the New York Times for years (15?), and therefore has personalized and contextualized knowledge of the issues. This book alternates between the politics of welfare and the stories of 3 Midwestern women, which is a really nice method for humanizing the policies and explaining how these women are subject to economic forces beyond their control. The stories of these women (who seem remarkable, but are not necessarily that different from anyone else) also beautifully demonstrate how people have capitalized on welfare and used other survival tactics to get by. Obviously, choosing three Black urban women to discuss welfare reform has its drawbacks; most women on welfare during this period were neither Black nor urban. But the author recognizes and addresses this issue. I would read anything else by him, and hope he writes a follow-up about poverty in the "post-welfare" years.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Tim

    This really was journalism at its best, weaving small scale personal stories into a broader narrative. I opposed the "W-2" welfare reform effort to eliminate welfare in Wisconsin, and I think this book justifies my opposition: the program was obviously corrupt from the start (I suspect "privatization" efforts often are) and the purpose of the program was not ending poverty, just ending welfare. Yet the book is pretty honest in also justifying the drive to end welfare as a (possibly) legitimate g This really was journalism at its best, weaving small scale personal stories into a broader narrative. I opposed the "W-2" welfare reform effort to eliminate welfare in Wisconsin, and I think this book justifies my opposition: the program was obviously corrupt from the start (I suspect "privatization" efforts often are) and the purpose of the program was not ending poverty, just ending welfare. Yet the book is pretty honest in also justifying the drive to end welfare as a (possibly) legitimate goal in itself. We could have, and should have, done better, but I do better appreciate the goal of ending welfare as a goal in itself. The best parts of the book, however, are the stories about the individuals, from the architects of the program to the victims of the program. The book is oddly generous toward all the actors in the story. I definitely recommend this book.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Amanda

    This is both a good study of the welfare-to-work program from a journalistic perspective, but also a window into just how hard it is to be a member of the truly working poor. The story centered on three (mostly) single moms trying to raise their families and survive after Clinton's push to "end welfare as we know it". I felt varying degrees of empathy and exasperation for the characters - on the one hand, you see how hard these women work just to hold things together and prioritize the things in This is both a good study of the welfare-to-work program from a journalistic perspective, but also a window into just how hard it is to be a member of the truly working poor. The story centered on three (mostly) single moms trying to raise their families and survive after Clinton's push to "end welfare as we know it". I felt varying degrees of empathy and exasperation for the characters - on the one hand, you see how hard these women work just to hold things together and prioritize the things in their lives (electricity or rent? clothes or food?); on the other, you see the ravages of drugs, the instability of their relationships and the tolls their decisions take on their children as they witness the chaos.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Leif Erik

    Assigned in my Poli-Sci Public Issues class. Interesting account of welfare reform, taking in the big picture and the human scale. You definately get a sense of what welfare is actually about, as compared to the demonizing & sob stories that normally surround the issue. The facts on the ground will challenge your assumptions no matter what ideological baggage you carry.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Darcy For

    This was an amazing perspective on trying to understand poverty, and where it comes from. I didn't walk away with a definitive answer, but definately more of an understanding. I read this after reading Nickel and Dimed... they both gave me so much to think about. This was an amazing perspective on trying to understand poverty, and where it comes from. I didn't walk away with a definitive answer, but definately more of an understanding. I read this after reading Nickel and Dimed... they both gave me so much to think about.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Summer

    This reporter starting following these three families when Clinton started talking about "ending welfare as we know it". They had each been drawing cash aid in the beginning. By the end of the story, none of them were. He traces one family's roots back to a slave named Frank Caples. He is the great-great grandfather to two of the book's main characters. After slavery he and his children and grandchildren are sharecroppers. This book focuses on the branch of the family that went north, but frankl This reporter starting following these three families when Clinton started talking about "ending welfare as we know it". They had each been drawing cash aid in the beginning. By the end of the story, none of them were. He traces one family's roots back to a slave named Frank Caples. He is the great-great grandfather to two of the book's main characters. After slavery he and his children and grandchildren are sharecroppers. This book focuses on the branch of the family that went north, but frankly they don't live significantly better than they did on the farm. This book does an amazing job of blending personal narrative and public policy. The three main characters profess to be unaware or uninterested in politics but the decisions made in Washington D.C. affect their daily lives. One of the most interesting things to me was the exodus from the rolls that work rules created. It seemed unfathomable to me that so many people would voluntarily stop taking the checks once work became mandatory. But that's exactly what happened. I wonder if that is the real goal of people nowadays calling for drug testing for recipients. The women who previously received cash aid, went to work. They worked hard. They worked long hours. Their children were largely unsupervised and got into a lot of trouble. They did see some small gains in their lives, but they were not nearly enough to significantly effect their quality of life. They still struggled to keep the lights on. They made a lot of their own terrible choices. I was incensed that one subject, addicted to crack, continued to have babies even after her older children were taken away. I was baffled by spending tax windfalls on things like new furniture when what they really needed was a car. I was perplexed that they let their children do ridiculous things like keep flea-ridden cats or destructive pit bulls. I think they were too tired and worn out to make rational decisions sometimes. I've heard it said that if you were born poor and everyone you know is poor, it seem pointless to try to get out of poverty. The women worked very hard at multi-billion dollar companies. They got up to $9 an hour for their work. It's hard to imagine how frustrating it must be to put in so much effort for so little return. Some of the problems highlighted in this book should have gotten better by now. For instance, lack of health insurance was a big issue for these families. Hopefully with ACA, this has been resolved. (This book was written in 2004. I'd love to read an update) Something that I kept coming around to was the thought that we, as a nation, can do something more to discourage unplanned births. Surely if we took this on as the major public health issue it is, we could make a significant change in our society. Look at what we did for smoking. Couldn't the same thing be done for unplanned births? The 3 women in this book had 13 children between them and not a daddy in sight. By the end of the book, the oldest daughter had 2 kids, so I guess that's actually 15 kids in this clan. Surely we can do BETTER. So anyway, it was a very interesting book. I think the end of cash payments in exchange for more in-kind support (food stamps, Medicaid, training programs, utility assistance, housing) is actually a good thing. I think it's in line with our American values and I think it ultimately does more good for more people. But it hasn't eradicated poverty. It hasn't significantly made life better for people below the poverty line. It may have sort of provided a bit of a path out of poverty for those who choose to take it... but it's a dark path, littered with stones and stalked by monsters. One thing I think we can all agree on is insisting on accountability for politicians and bureaucrats who spend our tax dollars. The most infuriating stories in this book were squandered tax dollars, earmarked to help the poor, ending up in the pockets of the corrupt. Government transparency is indispensable and we should insist on accountability of officials. It was so frustrating to read about companies contracted to administer welfare, where the CEOs got rich, but the case workers had 2x as many cases as they should. That created problems for the people most in need and was so unnecessary. (Criminal charges were brought against the most egregious offenders, but that doesn't much help the families who didn't get the aid they needed) Anyway, it was a brilliantly written, very interesting, engaging story about major changes in America's safety net. It would also serve as a sociology book on the poor in America if you're interested in that. I highly recommend it to anyone who cares about poor people and our national obligation to them.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Ellen Pierson

    Jason DeParle came to the Welfare beat with years of journalistic experience and a perspective that one would probably more or less expect from a New York Times reporter. The story he compiled after a decade of research – a decade during which his subjects persevered on and off the welfare rolls despite disappointments and setbacks – defies easy ideological classification. It says something when the Times and the National Review both praise your book. Mainly, it says that the challenges of entr Jason DeParle came to the Welfare beat with years of journalistic experience and a perspective that one would probably more or less expect from a New York Times reporter. The story he compiled after a decade of research – a decade during which his subjects persevered on and off the welfare rolls despite disappointments and setbacks – defies easy ideological classification. It says something when the Times and the National Review both praise your book. Mainly, it says that the challenges of entrenched poverty are the purview of neither Left nor Right. The tired narratives of both sides, with their reflexive talking points attributing causes and dispensing prescriptions, each have a little bit of truth to them and are totally inadequate at the same time. DeParle weaves together the complicated truth that the Personal Responsibility Act – itself a bit of an irony in the neoliberal vein – both succeeded and failed. Poor women tumbled off the rolls and went to work. Turned out, they were less dependent on welfare money than people had supposed in the first place. Some women did report that work held intrinsic benefits. Unfortunately self-esteem doesn’t translate to economic wellbeing. The woman who most bought into the notion that “work sets you free” wound up with about $6,000 more a year and 3 kids who spent most of their time unsupervised and in varying degrees of trouble. The book does an excellent job of demonstrating the devastation wrought by the intersections between the systemic barriers of poverty and the self-destructive behaviors that often accompany it. Maybe the biggest take-away is something that we are starting to realize more and more in the midst of a “jobless recovery.” People want to work. They want to support themselves and their families and they are willing to work extremely hard and endure a lot of hardships to do that. It’s a harsh market for low-skilled workers, though, and that problem is bad and getting worse. This book came out four years before what has come to be known as the financial crisis, but in a lot of places the financial crisis has been going on for decades. A lot of what I have written is sort of an abstraction of what the book is about, but the main reason you should read this book is that it does not do what I’ve just done. These are personal individual stories that are carefully connected to well-researched larger trajectories. Whatever your worldview, this book will remind you to be very careful before thinking that you know what should be done for/about the poor.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Chrisiant

    Good comprehensive and accessible narrative non-fiction. Having been roughly 9 years old when the big Welfare Bill was passed in 1994, I don't have a clear sense of how it happened or the relevant political fights that were going on at the time. Several chapters outlined that process, in a clear and relatively colorful way (for a description of a legislative fight). I found lots of striking information in the stories of the three women: their sense of themselves as strong, scrappy problem-solvers Good comprehensive and accessible narrative non-fiction. Having been roughly 9 years old when the big Welfare Bill was passed in 1994, I don't have a clear sense of how it happened or the relevant political fights that were going on at the time. Several chapters outlined that process, in a clear and relatively colorful way (for a description of a legislative fight). I found lots of striking information in the stories of the three women: their sense of themselves as strong, scrappy problem-solvers contrasted with outside perceptions of them as lazy grafters; the fact that so many people receiving AFDC benefits were also working without reporting it, so welfare-to-work programs resulted in ludicrous situations where women were skipping "motivation" classes required by welfare to go to their jobs; the economic reality that for these women working and not receiving welfare benefits netted them very little in terms of overall finances, and they all lost their healthcare. I don't think I really grasped how much welfare benefits programs and low income health insurance programs were linked, and what a massive problem it was to be pushing large numbers of women off of welfare and into work as part-time low-paid nursing assistants because that also meant they were without any healthcare. There were also some ideas that carried through from the previous book I read about the Great Migration, about difficulties that came down through generations, the contributions of generations of emasculation of black men and of drug sales and the prison pipeline to the current instability of lots of poor, urban, black families. Lots of thoughts to pull apart and examine here, and a good deal of chunky background information to help inform the examination.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Lisa Lewis

    This book was a really well-written, engaging view of welfare reform as seen through the lives of three women living in Milwaukee. DeParle is (was?) a journalist for the New York Times and has been reporting on poverty and urban life for decades; in this book he pulls together a perspective that combines personal stories through several generations and places them in the social and political context of American society throughout the 80s 90s and early 2000s. Sounds dry and academic, but I promis This book was a really well-written, engaging view of welfare reform as seen through the lives of three women living in Milwaukee. DeParle is (was?) a journalist for the New York Times and has been reporting on poverty and urban life for decades; in this book he pulls together a perspective that combines personal stories through several generations and places them in the social and political context of American society throughout the 80s 90s and early 2000s. Sounds dry and academic, but I promise you it is not! I had a special interest in this book once I realized that Angie, Opal and Jewell are about my age and that I was a single mother on welfare during part of the time that they were in that situation. The huge difference between my situation and theirs became evident early in the book: race and family class. I came from a working class/lower middle class white family rather than a poverty level black family, and that was all the difference in the world. For me, welfare was a temporary thing until I got on my feet and was able to move into the socioeconomic level I had come from. The women that this book focuses on did almost the same thing but with a huge difference: when they came off welfare, it was to stay solidly at the poverty level or a miniscule number of dollars above the poverty level. The take home message of this book, to me, is that our nation fails its poor members in so many ways. The money spent on welfare reform (and the money wasted on contracts with private, profit-making companies to carry out that reform) could be put to so many potential uses that would support the working poor (which describe the vast majority of people at poverty level)...

  16. 4 out of 5

    Erin

    This was a really interesting book about welfare..it gave a brief history of how the program started..it was originally meant as a transitional program for white widows with children to use temporarily until their husband's social security kicked in..eventually it was transferred to an entitlement program for minorities and became the worst drain on the American taxpayer possible. During the Clinton administration, Republicans forced him to create a path to work for welafre recipiants with time This was a really interesting book about welfare..it gave a brief history of how the program started..it was originally meant as a transitional program for white widows with children to use temporarily until their husband's social security kicked in..eventually it was transferred to an entitlement program for minorities and became the worst drain on the American taxpayer possible. During the Clinton administration, Republicans forced him to create a path to work for welafre recipiants with time limits which in turn drove millions of people to stop taking advantage of their fellow citizens.... it was amazing to me to read how many welfare people were able to scam the system by collecting welfare checks and working at the same time- even at government jobs like the post office. The most amusing part of the whole book is that it is written from a left wing point of view and the author is clearly sympathetic with the theives on the welfare roles and has zero sympathy for the taxpayers who are getting screwed. The fact is, there are some people that no matter how much money you throw at them, they are still going to do drugs, have ten illegitimate children and lie, cheat and steal. None of the persons portrayed in this book are victims or even nice people. I think it's time that our government become accountable and find a way to stop entitlement programs all together, except for legitimate emergency situations.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Charlotte

    The author has written an interesting and informative book about welfare and welfare reform. The author brought the understanding of welfare reform to life by interweaving discussion of policy and politics with stories about the lives of three women in Milwaukee on welfare. The three women who the author followed were sympathetically yet realistically portrayed as complex human beings trying to do the best they can within the circumstances they live in. This book has managed to reaffirm my belie The author has written an interesting and informative book about welfare and welfare reform. The author brought the understanding of welfare reform to life by interweaving discussion of policy and politics with stories about the lives of three women in Milwaukee on welfare. The three women who the author followed were sympathetically yet realistically portrayed as complex human beings trying to do the best they can within the circumstances they live in. This book has managed to reaffirm my belief that privatizing human service care is a bad idea. The mismanagement of these programs was stunning and in some cases money that could have been used for support of clients was used for PR and to generate new business. Because of the decline in cases due to so many people going off the welfare roles there were surpluses of money. Large sums were going to advertising but there was a failure to hire the number of case workers needed to conduct the program properly. This book also reaffirms the fact that there are no quick fixes...no magic bullets....or snappy slogans that will make life better for those trying to survive in poor neighborhoods in the US. As long as there are few jobs with meaningful opportunities to support families, poor schools,lack of strong family supports such as child care, and crumbling infrastructure, programs such as these are simply bandaids.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Katie

    A complex, in depth and even-handed look at the transition from AFDC to TANF nationally and locally. DeParle balances extensively researched statistics and interviews with policy wonks and politicians (as poverty correspondent for the NYT he is very well connected) with the story of 3 women and their families on welfare in Milwaukee. I found it particularly interesting because so much of the book involved WI and Milwaukee. His conclusion is that TANF did push women off welfare and on to (mostly l A complex, in depth and even-handed look at the transition from AFDC to TANF nationally and locally. DeParle balances extensively researched statistics and interviews with policy wonks and politicians (as poverty correspondent for the NYT he is very well connected) with the story of 3 women and their families on welfare in Milwaukee. I found it particularly interesting because so much of the book involved WI and Milwaukee. His conclusion is that TANF did push women off welfare and on to (mostly low wage) employment, but it hasn't significantly changed the level of poverty or living conditions for former welfare families. The book left me with the feeling that we can do better. The exposition on how TANF got passed can get a bit dry at times, but the information is worth reading. One thing that especially struck me is how legislative decisions about the lives of poor women with children were largely made by upper class men. I was also struck by the incompetence of the for profit companies who implemented TANF for the states - so much for privatization creating efficiencies and saving tax payer money. Finally, I wonder about the families DeParle followed for so many years. What did they get out of this book, that dissected their lives in such detail for the world to read? I fear not much.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Peggy

    A bit repetitive at times, but this book did a good job of showing me, a largely bleeding heart liberal, exactly HOW welfare reform failed. For one, the author makes a point that many welfare recipients were secretly working on the side anyway, because neither welfare alone nor a minimum wage job alone was enough for these families to make it. So for all the "success" claimed by the politicians in terms of the reform pushing folks off of welfare rolls and into jobs, the book makes the argument t A bit repetitive at times, but this book did a good job of showing me, a largely bleeding heart liberal, exactly HOW welfare reform failed. For one, the author makes a point that many welfare recipients were secretly working on the side anyway, because neither welfare alone nor a minimum wage job alone was enough for these families to make it. So for all the "success" claimed by the politicians in terms of the reform pushing folks off of welfare rolls and into jobs, the book makes the argument that for former welfare recipients, there was no substantive difference - they were still working long hours, very low-income, not being able to spend time with their families or putting by savings to get ahead. And he does have some solutions - more tax credits for the working poor to increase their real income, and better case management. But given how unpopular it is to acknowledge that poverty exists in the US, who knows how long it will be before there is enough political will to implement these eminently reasonable policies.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca Brooker

    In all honesty, this is a disheartening but interesting look at welfare in the US from its inception through the Clinton administration's eager drive to put welfare mothers into jobs. Readers get a brief history of the purpose of the system, its entanglement with the post-slavery era, a vivid look at three mothers who survive - to some extent - the changes in welfare under Clinton, and an inarguable look at a broken system that will be difficult to change. DeParle's writing weaves facts with per In all honesty, this is a disheartening but interesting look at welfare in the US from its inception through the Clinton administration's eager drive to put welfare mothers into jobs. Readers get a brief history of the purpose of the system, its entanglement with the post-slavery era, a vivid look at three mothers who survive - to some extent - the changes in welfare under Clinton, and an inarguable look at a broken system that will be difficult to change. DeParle's writing weaves facts with personal experience, incorporating history, economics, and informal interviews. I was hoping that at the end of the book, I would have a definite opinion about the system and have a solidified view of how I think things should be run. As with most things, the only certainty is that the bigger picture is much more complicated and that there are no easy answers. Still, anyone who thinks they know about welfare and the way that things should be run would benefit from this cover-to-cover challenge of such notions.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Camille Rinella

    Insightful look at the bi-partisan history of welfare in the 80's and 90's and the lives of an extended family as they move through and away from the system. The book follows the lives of 3 cousin's and their family migration from the South where they worked first as sharecroppers, then to Chicago and finally to the Milwaukee area. Of particular interest are the negotiations between Republican's and Democrat's and their mutual and genuine attempts at finding a solution to ending multi-generation Insightful look at the bi-partisan history of welfare in the 80's and 90's and the lives of an extended family as they move through and away from the system. The book follows the lives of 3 cousin's and their family migration from the South where they worked first as sharecroppers, then to Chicago and finally to the Milwaukee area. Of particular interest are the negotiations between Republican's and Democrat's and their mutual and genuine attempts at finding a solution to ending multi-generational, long term poverty. The Democratic party of the 90's is eerily similar to the Republican party of today. In retrospect both parties seem willing to cross the aisle and negotiate in a way that we don't see with our current administration. I would recommend this book for those interested in studying the sociology of poverty and families as well as those interested in opening a time capsule from the 90's with a focus on Clinton era politics.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Ocean

    as someone who works in the welfare field, this book taught me a lot. i learned a lot about the controversial welfare reform going on in the 90's, largely blamed on bill clinton (although this book shows the actual process of that whole mess, & it's a lot more complicated than just clinton.) the author also profiles an extended family who was on welfare before the reforms & then was kicked off the rolls. this part is where the book shines. unlike many pieces i've read about welfare recipients, t as someone who works in the welfare field, this book taught me a lot. i learned a lot about the controversial welfare reform going on in the 90's, largely blamed on bill clinton (although this book shows the actual process of that whole mess, & it's a lot more complicated than just clinton.) the author also profiles an extended family who was on welfare before the reforms & then was kicked off the rolls. this part is where the book shines. unlike many pieces i've read about welfare recipients, the subjects are not portrayed as innocent victims or lazy cheats, but as people, both deeply flawed and uproariously funny who are going through hard times & doing their best. their tangled stories are fascinating, with no easy solutions at hand. also, the bureaucracy profiled in the wisconsin welfare offices made me feel A LOT better about my own shitty job!

  23. 4 out of 5

    Anne Attanas

    An honest and non-partisan look at the realities not only of welfare, but of welfare reform as seen through the stories of three young women and their families. While many such sociological books advertise themselves to be objective, this is the first objective account I have come across thus far. The author does not take any sides, is not for or against welfare and welfare reform, and essentially presents the facts in thorough manner and then lets what good journalists should do--let the reader An honest and non-partisan look at the realities not only of welfare, but of welfare reform as seen through the stories of three young women and their families. While many such sociological books advertise themselves to be objective, this is the first objective account I have come across thus far. The author does not take any sides, is not for or against welfare and welfare reform, and essentially presents the facts in thorough manner and then lets what good journalists should do--let the reader draw his own opinions. Essentially Mr. DeParle carefully unveils the complexities of poverty and renders a fair account of how many factors contribute to poverty and the goal should not to be to help people "get by," but rather the goal should be to help people elevate themselves and their families, which welfare has failed to do as evidenced by the hard data. Recommended.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Michele :)

    I absolutly loved this book. As a single mother in Wisconsin who has struggled to make ends meet for the last 9 years this book really spoke to me. DeParle follows four young women and their children for an extended period of time in Milwaukee, Wisconsin through "welfare reform". The book critically examines issues of job training, education, economic support, and other daily struggles poor mothers and thier children face. DeParle is close enough to the women he followed to be able to shed some I absolutly loved this book. As a single mother in Wisconsin who has struggled to make ends meet for the last 9 years this book really spoke to me. DeParle follows four young women and their children for an extended period of time in Milwaukee, Wisconsin through "welfare reform". The book critically examines issues of job training, education, economic support, and other daily struggles poor mothers and thier children face. DeParle is close enough to the women he followed to be able to shed some light on the many creative ways families have had to "cheat the system" simply to survive. Anyone interested in how welfare reform did or did not work, and issues related to poverty needs to read this book NOW!

  25. 5 out of 5

    Kate

    Very complete look at welfare reform, and the problems several women encountered in Milwaukee trying to leave welfare in the 1990s immediately after President Clinton and the Republicans overhauled AFDC. Also goes into the history of the program, how it came to be overwhelmingly tangled in the issue of race, behind the scenes maneuvering in Washington within the Clinton Administration and between the right-wing Congress. I'm making this sound like a sort of dry book but it's not at all; I read i Very complete look at welfare reform, and the problems several women encountered in Milwaukee trying to leave welfare in the 1990s immediately after President Clinton and the Republicans overhauled AFDC. Also goes into the history of the program, how it came to be overwhelmingly tangled in the issue of race, behind the scenes maneuvering in Washington within the Clinton Administration and between the right-wing Congress. I'm making this sound like a sort of dry book but it's not at all; I read it in a few days. It's very fast paced and filled with readable details about all the characters' lives; the women on assistance, their kids and boyfriends, the caseworkers, the policy wonks, etc.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Kirsti

    "This is a reporter's endeavor: no names have been changed, characters melded, or quotes invented." The reporter for the New York Times's poverty beat spent several years chronicling the lives of three women affected by the "end of welfare as we know it." Some of the policy-wonk stuff gets a little dull, but just about everything about the women and their families is fascinating, even the everyday stuff. I didn't know that nursing aides get injured at twice the rate of coal miners and earn less t "This is a reporter's endeavor: no names have been changed, characters melded, or quotes invented." The reporter for the New York Times's poverty beat spent several years chronicling the lives of three women affected by the "end of welfare as we know it." Some of the policy-wonk stuff gets a little dull, but just about everything about the women and their families is fascinating, even the everyday stuff. I didn't know that nursing aides get injured at twice the rate of coal miners and earn less than half the pay. Also, I have never witnessed an argument in which one person drops a car battery on the head of another person.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    We don't have a whole lot to give right now, but both Joel and I hope to help people in the future. I figure the best thing I can do right now is to learn as much as I can about what poverty actually looks like in our country. To that end, I plan to read this book soon. We don't have a whole lot to give right now, but both Joel and I hope to help people in the future. I figure the best thing I can do right now is to learn as much as I can about what poverty actually looks like in our country. To that end, I plan to read this book soon.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Dave

    This is an excellent, unbiased, non-partisan, often-wonky look at American social policy. It's extremely well-researched and loaded with numbers, but also tells the story of a few families' lives to put faces on the statistics. This is an excellent, unbiased, non-partisan, often-wonky look at American social policy. It's extremely well-researched and loaded with numbers, but also tells the story of a few families' lives to put faces on the statistics.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Faith

    Very interesting account of welfare reform written by man who covered it for the NYT during the Clinton years. Geoffrey suggested it. The descriptions of the three central characters and their lives read like fiction, but diParle also offers good history.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Aine

    What a great book!! And that has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that my buddy Lory was a researcher on it. ;)Seriously, a great book -- and one that talks about the impact of welfare reform in this county: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

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