by Jason DeParle
Viking Books, 2004, 422 pp., $25.95
Jason DeParle’s American Dream tells the story of three Milwaukee women who left welfare in the mid-1990s, at the moment when the federal government (with the state of Wisconsin a few steps ahead) launched the new regime of penalties, time limits, and work requirements. The book is the product of a decade of labor, and it is a superb piece of reporting and narrative. DeParle seems to have been deeply moved by the struggles he encountered, but his prose has none of the sentimentality or heavy breathing that one finds in, say, Jonathan Kozol. It’s clear from the outset that DeParle is, in some broad sense, a Clintonite, but he doesn’t bully the reader into any particular frame of political analysis. He lets his stories simmer on the page.
Most of the book is written at ground level, with a tight focus on an extended family-the three women at its heart are Opal Caples, Angela Jobe, and Jewell Reed-that moved to Milwaukee from the south side of Chicago during the early 1990s. Jobe was the first to make the move north. In a 1991 gang conflict, her boyfriend, Greg Reed (who is Jewell’s brother), was among a group of men who shot and killed a fourteen-year-old bystander. After Greg was given a decades-long prison sentence, Jobe decided to make a new start in a smaller city with cheaper rent and better public benefits. She was twenty-five years old, with three children and no high school diploma.
Reed and Caples and their children followed soon thereafter. During the last decade, the three women have taken low-wage jobs in nursing homes, motels, post offices, discount stores, and a tool-making plant. They have wrestled with the post-welfare social-service bureaucracy. They have had a few more children and have tried to keep them healthy. They have fallen in love with various men, some of whom have been talented and generous and some of whom have been petty and violent. Caples has lost many years of her life to a full-bore cocaine addiction.
Some people on the left might object that DeParle devotes too much attention to personal and domestic crises and not enough to the economic and political structures that constrain his subjects’ lives. Such critics might point out that many more pages are set in the protagonists’ kitchens than in their workplaces, and that DeParle’s treatment of the labor market is rather thin. (The book includes several deftly written Washington-based chapters about the evolution of the 1996 federal welfare-reform bill, but not much is said about the trade policies, labor laws, and persistent racism that have shaped the terrain for low-wage Milwaukee workers.)
A certain version of that complaint is prob...
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