Back when President Bill Clinton’s pledge to “end welfare as we know it” was known in White House corridors as “EWAWKI” (pronounced to rhyme with Milwaukee), Jason DeParle, senior writer at The New York Times, was closer to the policy story than any reporter.
DeParle could reach the principals with the ease of a major campaign contributor, gain access to drafts and comment memos initialled by top players at the White House, the Cabinet and Congress, then carve out one of those gems that editors at the Gray Lady of New York regard as news fit to print. Then, as soon as Clinton signed landmark welfare reform legislation in August 1996, DeParle’s byline practically disappeared.
In American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare his readers can learn that, as he put at a pre-publication briefing, DeParle was gathering material for “two stories on a collision course with each other.” DeParle tells the inside story of the policy, starting with the birth of Clinton’s signature phrase and permutations in early drafts by speechwriter Bruce Reed. He introduces every major player (and some minor ones) through the Democrats’ congressional election debacle of 1994 at the hands of a Republican political bomb-thrower who became Speaker of the House, Newton Leroy Gingrich. Then he brings us to the moment of anguish in the Democratic administration, when Gingrich’s legislative troops dispatched to the president’s desk legislation that to Clintonian wonks reeked like three-day-old fish left lying in the sun.
We all know the denouement. In the following three years, the welfare rolls dropped 50 percent, a development that academic researchers now concur owed at least as much to the longest and broadest economic expansion since World War II as to federal policy, Clinton’s or Gingrich’s.
But that is only half DeParle’s story. Remember the collision? While reform’s locomotive picked up top speed, three black women, 10 children and a dysfunctional coterie of male pimps, drug dealers and all-around ne’er-do-wells, gather up their meager belongings in Chicago and move into the path of the policy train as it approaches the city that rhymes with EWAWKI.
Black women, whose families DeParle traces back to slavery on plantations owned by the forebears of Senator James Eastland of Mississippi, the man who boasted that his pocket was stuffed with civil rights legislation he had blocked, choose as their new home Milwaukee. This happens just as Wisconsin’s Governor Tommy Thompson, currently federal secretary of health and human services, launches one of the most draconian versions of reform in the country.
Will the welfare reform train run over the women tied to the poverty track? You’ll have to read the book. Still, DeParle does not answer concerns regarding his choice of damsels in distress, and his reliance on a relatively new style of socially prurient reporting in newspapers remains disturbing. Only 39 percent of the welfare caseload is African-American; and despite a recent spate of stories depicting the underclass in terms of addictions, prostitution and child abuse, most are law-abiding mothers trying desperately to provide for their children. Does not focusing on a group of black female-headed households whose members do more than just flirt with criminal activities, who recurrently fit the proverbial profile of the “welfare cheat,” and one of whose male companions looks, in DeParle’s words, like “Willie Horton’s twin,” merely reinforce a negative stereotypes?
A University of Pennsylvania sociology professor, Kathryn Edin, who has followed not three post-reform welfare families but hundreds of them in 13 low-income neighborhoods in four cities, has found DeParle’s stories “untypical.” While many welfare mothers suffer the trials faced by one of DeParle’s protagonists, none she knows has suffered as many in combination nor, conversely, managed to succeed at holding jobs at the same salary level and duration.
Yet perhaps DeParle need not be faulted. After all, the story of welfare reform really is about misconceptions concerning people in need and the craven politicians who have failed them.