TBR: American Dream

Today’s book is American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and A Nation’s Drive to End Welfare. It’s by Jason DeParle, who covered the "welfare beat" for the New York Times during the mid-1990s, when welfare reform was being debated. He eventually decided that he wanted to cover the story more in-depth than the pressures of a newspaper allowed and this book is the result.

It’s a terrific book — DeParle does a masterful job in moving back and forth between the broad strokes of welfare policy and politics, both in Washington DC and in Wisconsin, and the details of three women’s lives. I know a lot about welfare policy — it’s what I do professionally — and I learned some things I didn’t know, but it’s also very accessible for someone who doesn’t know anything about the subject. I think I should carry around a copy of it to hand to all the people who corner me at a party when they find out where I work and rant at me about welfare.

Reading the book made me very angry. Angry at the elected officials who were — and are — more interested in scoring political points off of each other than in making good policies. Angry at the organizations — some private, some "not-for-profit" — who took tons of money from the welfare department and spent a whole lot of it on fancy dinners and advertising and golf balls with the company name on them instead of on the people who needed help. Angry at the men who are almost totally absent from this story many of them in jail. And angry at the mothers for not doing more to protect their children — for drinking and doing crack while pregnant (the alcohol is probably the worse for kids) — for tolerating "friends" and "family" who literally took food out of their kids’ mouths.

The title of this book is bitterly ironic. Not only aren’t these women living the American Dream, they don’t seem to have much in the way of dreams, any hope that life could be better in the future. As DeParle notes, for all the talk of how welfare recipients are held down by a sense of "entitlement," what’s amazing is how little the women he talked to feel entitled to: not a job that pays a living wage, not a safe neighborhood, not a good school for their children. They’re survivors, and that’s both their strength and their downfall. When the welfare office screws up and cuts off their food stamps in error, or when someone steals their car, making it impossible to get to work, they cope. But they’re not doing much to make tomorrow better — either for themselves or their children.

It’s hard to know what policy conclusions to take from this book. The three women DeParle follows — Angie, Jewell and Opal — consistently deny that welfare reform mattered to them. And yet two of them were off of cash assistance and working for almost the entire period covered by the book, part of a huge overall trend. At the same time, their lives were only marginally better than before. DeParle and many others have suggested that part of the solution has to be get the men more involved — as a source of both emotional and financial support — but no one really knows how to do that. It’s a dilemna.

One Response to “TBR: American Dream”

  1. Marni Says:

    I read DeParle’s piece in the NYT, and among the many, many things that struck me was Ken’s Hollywood notion (if you will) that if he couldn’t have a luxe-wedding with all the bells and whistles (i.e., the marriage equivalent of the brass ring), then he’d rather not “settle” with Jewell. I think I was most struck by how thoroughly soaked all of us are with the images we allow into our homes: is it not choosing to stay in perpetual search of a “Claire Huxtable” versus attempting to knit a life of give-and-take? I don’t propose to have the answers, but I do believe that once children have entered the picture there are a different set of needs that come to the fore.

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