Politics & Policy

Lifting Up The People

From the November 29, 2004, issue of National Review.

American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare, by Jason DeParle (Viking, 422 pp., $25.95)

Bill Clinton’s promise to “end welfare as we know it” played a decisive role in his 1992 victory. Despite its deliberate vagueness, Clinton’s pledge foreshadowed real changes. Jason DeParle’s fascinating new book, American Dream, chronicles the “end of welfare” from Clinton’s campaign slogan through the historic legislation passed by a Republican Congress, and–even more important–offers an insightful examination of poverty and the underclass.

DeParle begins with the following premise: “We live in a country where anyone can make it: yet generation after generation some families don’t. To argue about welfare is to argue about why.” He attempts to answer this question through an in-depth personal exploration of the lives of the poor–and the result is one of the best books on the American underclass ever written, a compelling account that is disturbing, yet hopeful.

The core of the book is a rich narrative of the lives of three families in inner-city Milwaukee. The author spent years studying these families and came to know them intimately. The families are trapped in webs of dysfunctional behavior stretching back for generations; all are headed by single mothers, two of whom are high-school dropouts. Between them, the three mothers have twelve children out of wedlock. (Two of the children were born after the chief events reported in the book, hence the subtitle.) Fathers are absent; drugs, drug dealing, alcohol, and violence abound. Children avoid school and are drawn to early sex, violence, and the streets. The parents and children are separated from mainstream society by an avalanche of self-destructive behavior that seems almost inescapable.

A major concern of American Dream is how these families are affected by welfare reform. DeParle’s initial views on reform were cynical. As a reporter covering the welfare beat for the New York Times in the early 1990s, he relied on the pessimistic views of elite battalions of liberal experts in academia and think tanks: Welfare recipients could not be expected to work, since no jobs were available; welfare caseloads were immutable; and reforming welfare would cost far more than maintaining the status quo. When the Republican welfare reform was enacted in 1996, liberals uniformly predicted it would throw millions into poverty and leave children “sleeping on grates.”

In contrast, a handful of conservative theorists predicted the opposite: If welfare mothers were required to work or prepare for work in exchange for aid, they would leave the rolls in large numbers and take jobs; poverty rates would fall. As welfare reform was implemented, liberal and conservative theories were put to the test. Liberal predictions turned out to be wildly inaccurate. In Wisconsin, welfare caseloads dropped by 90 percent; across the nation, families on welfare fell from 5 million to 2 million. Nationwide, employment of single moms surged and child poverty dropped. In particular, the black child-poverty rate, which had remained frozen for a quarter century under the old, permissive welfare system, quickly plunged from 41 percent down to a historic low of 30 percent.

Conservatives had clearly understood the dynamics of welfare and employment far better than the liberal elites: If welfare recipients were required to earn their benefits, they would not stay on welfare long. DeParle’s welfare mothers in Milwaukee exceeded conservative expectations; faced with serious work requirements, they quickly left welfare and found jobs with ease. (Some were already working “off the books.”)

But DeParle also finds major shortcomings in conventional accounts of welfare reform’s success. The implementation of reform often falls far short of government press releases; his inner-city mothers, though employed, continue to face significant financial difficulties and–worst of all–chaos still rules in their households. Years after reform, their children seem to be glued to the same downward path the parents took long before: They drop out of school, have children out of wedlock, and are drawn toward crime and violence. Reform seems to have done little to disrupt the culture of the underclass.

This should not be a great surprise. Underclass culture is like an old stump with deep, tangled roots, difficult to dislodge. In slums from Chicago to London, the underclass is characterized by six interrelated behaviors: illegitimacy and the disappearance of marriage; limited supervision and control of children; school failure, and the lack of educational self-discipline; eroded work ethic, especially among men; chronic alcohol and drug abuse; and violence and crime. These behaviors roil through the pages of American Dream. Given the complexity of these problems, it should be clear that simply increasing women’s employment could never be expected to catapult families out of the underclass. Making welfare mothers work may be a necessary precondition to uplifting the underclass, but it is far from sufficient.

But to focus on families long trapped within the underclass is to miss much of the reform’s success. Among conservatives who worked on the 1996 reform legislation, the paramount goal was to slow the alarming expansion of the underclass–a more realistic short-term objective than trying to rescue families long mired within it. The best predictor of underclass behavior is the share of all births that occur out of wedlock. At the beginning of the War on Poverty in the 1960s, 7 percent of all U.S. births were out of wedlock; by the mid-1990s, this figure had swollen to 32 percent, and was rising rapidly (one percentage point each year). As marriage disappeared from poor communities, other social problems mushroomed.

Once welfare reform took effect, however, the 30-year rise in illegitimacy came to a halt–and, contrary to all expectations, the rate has remained flat for nearly a decade. This represents an enormous, unheralded social victory. DeParle acknowledges that this momentous change can be explained only by welfare reform and its message that welfare could no longer be a permanent way of life. Thus, the greatest success of welfare reform has been largely invisible to the press and politicians. This success occurred not among mothers already on welfare, but among the thousands of women who, because of reform, never had a child out of wedlock, never went on welfare, and never started on the long multi-generation tumble into the underclass nightmares so vividly described in American Dream.

Even with his tight focus on troubled inner-city families, DeParle is quietly optimistic. Despite the chaos that continues to embroil his protagonists, he holds that welfare reform was an important step forward. He argues that the next step must grapple with the absence of fathers and marriage, which he correctly sees as the arch-problem fueling all others. In this, he concurs with long-held conservative views.

At heart, American Dream shows that the problems of the underclass are not economic but moral and behavioral. Liberals, for decades, have studiously ignored the moral dimensions of poverty–which leaves them ill equipped to address the crippling problems presented in this book. Conservatives, on the other hand, have always seen poverty and social problems as emanating from individual behavior. They have long proposed policies targeted specifically at the problems that afflict DeParle’s families. These policies include programs to promote healthy marriage, vouchers for poor children to attend religious schools, and public funds for faith-based drug treatment. Each of these ideas is currently mocked by the Left, just as conservative workfare policies were derided in decades past. But these policies, aimed at fundamental moral change, offer the best hope for broken families to find the American dream.

Mr. Rector is senior research fellow in welfare at the Heritage Foundation.

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