Welfare to What?

In the author’s new book, American Dream, three single mothers struggle to hold it all together in a post-Welfare world.

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

Running for President in 1992, Bill Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it.” Four years later, Congress passed a reform law that sent nine million women and children off the welfare rolls.

Under the law, states received block grants from the federal government to spend as they wished. In Wisconsin, Governor Tommy Thompson established the Wisconsin Works program, dubbed W-2, under which welfare recipients had to participate in mandatory job-training workshops or do community service in order to get their checks, with a five-year time limit before they had to get off the rolls. In the following years, caseloads plummeted by 93 percent, and W-2 was hailed the most successful welfare program in the country.

But what was lost in the celebration and political rhetoric was the reality of the hardship still facing those who made the jump from welfare to work. Clinton talked of hope, of dignity, and of breaking the cycle of poverty. But for many of the women who left welfare, life didn’t change all that much.

For seven years, New York Times reporter Jason DeParle investigated the downside of welfare reform. He followed the lives of Angie, Opal, and Jewell, three single mothers in one extended family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as they struggled to raise ten children in a world of crime, drugs, violence and hunger — all while trying to get off welfare. He found that the W-2 program was hampered by mismanagement and negligence, and that many of the gains made by women leaving welfare were offset by new costs, long hours, lack of health insurance, and the difficulty of finding affordable child care. He argues for policy changes that focus on men, finding a way to “legislate at dad.”

Jason DeParle spoke with MotherJones.com from his home in Washington DC. His book American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, And A Nation’s Drive To End Welfare is now out.

MotherJones.com: Bill Clinton set out to “end welfare as we know it.” Did he succeed?

Jason DeParle: Well he certainly succeeded in overhauling the law and substantially increasing employment rates among low-skilled women. It was a big success as an employment program, but it was less of a success as a program for social mobility. Implicit and sometimes explicit in [Clinton’s] thinking about welfare was that when mothers went to work their children would do better in school. He talked a lot about hope and dignity and role models and said the families would experience a different social and economic trajectory. But I found a lot less evidence of that taking place.

Most of the debate at the time was, If welfare recipients could go to work in substantial numbers, would there be enough jobs for them? Could they hold the jobs? Could the jobs pay enough for them to survive on? On that level the law worked surprisingly well. Two of the women I followed became workers; Angie had been on welfare for 12 years, Jewell for 8, and neither had a high-school degree. Yet they adapted to the workplace very quickly. I think that the evidence would show that their experience was typical in that regard. You could say that welfare reform worked better than we expected and better than we had a right to expect.

What surprised me was that the work didn’t do more to change the basic rhythm of family life. “Welfare to work” is one of those phrases that seemed to mean more to the policy community than it did to Angie and Jewell. I asked them lots and lots of welfare-centric questions, and finally Angie just looked at me and said, “That’s just you’re crazy stuff, Jason. You’re the one thinking about welfare, I’m just a low-income single mother raising my kids. The difference is bigger to you than it is to me.”

MJ.com: You write that the welfare system creates enough hassles that “those with other options make other plans.” What do you mean?

JD: I thought a lot of what I’d be writing about was a woman’s sustained interaction with a caseworker, a program, and a set of rules. I assumed the nexus of the story would be in the welfare office as she went through some interview prep and the job search, with more or less help from a counselor. But that really didn’t happen.

What happened with both Angie and Jewell, when they were told they had to go to [self-esteem] classes and perform community service, was that they answered very succinctly: “forget it”. And they went off and got their own jobs. The way the system worked was not through guidance or services like childcare. Mostly it was just by raising the costs of welfare. Once it got to be enough of a hassle, Angie and Jewell went off and made other plans.

MJ.com: After leaving welfare for work, the women you profile still don’t pull much further ahead. How come?

JD: What a lot of people don’t understand is that most people on public aid had other sources of income. Lots of them, including Angie, had under-the-table jobs or help from boyfriends. We tend to talk about welfare as though it was a 100 percent of their income, when it wasn’t, so when moving from welfare to work, the difference was less substantial than it might appear at first glance.

As Angie’s earnings went up, her welfare went down, but it wasn’t a complete wash. In the book, I compared her last four years on welfare with her first three years off. Her earned [income] tax credit went up by about $12,000 and her welfare and food stamps went down by about $8,000. She looked on paper like she was $3,400 ahead, but she then had work expenses on top of that — child care, a car — so factor that in and you wipe out most of the gain. She also lost her health insurance. At one point she said she didn’t feel any difference between where she had been when she was on welfare and when she was working, and at first I thought it was just a good-natured complaint. But she released her welfare and earnings records from the past dozen years, so I was able to actually plot what it had been. When you look at the numbers, she’s right, it really wasn’t much difference.

MJ.com: What are some of the policy changes that you feel should be adopted to better serve needy workers?

JD: The earned income tax credit was crucial to Angie and Jewell’s well-being, and because Wisconsin has a generous one, each of them was getting four to five thousand dollars a year from that program. Their lives were tough enough as it was with that subsidy; I can’t imagine how they would’ve gotten by without it. Simply leaving welfare for work doesn’t make them free of the need for ongoing support, both in the forms of tax credits and food stamp support. That’s a sustenance agenda. To really experience upward mobility economically they’re going to need to update their skills, and that’s been a real challenge for both of them. There hasn’t been a way for them to combine their work with training opportunities, that’s certainly a place for more policy initiatives.

MJ.com: Notably missing from the book are any persistently present male figures. What can be done to address the issues facing inner-city men?

JD: So far, most of the policy has focused on women. The AFPC has been a public policy initiative almost exclusively targeted at one gender. I think for these families to do better, the women need help economically, emotionally. They need a second set of hands, a second income. They need more responsible, stable, employed men in their midst.

I think [programs for men] are where the welfare-to-work field for women was 25 years ago. It’s really in its initial stages and in all honesty the initial results have been discouraging. Most programs for disadvantaged men haven’t produced much in terms of improved employment or earnings. But most programs for women didn’t work at first either.

But the one thing that I take away from the experience of writing about welfare for the last fifteen years is that whatever its shortcomings were, some progress was made. Earnings went up, employment went up, and these women were able to get jobs. This was in a field where up until then there was nothing but failure. It’s not that people can’t do something about the situation of these men. I’d like to see it become the next big push.

MJ.com: What effect would raising the minimum wage have?

JD: I’m all for it. The minimum wage is lower now than it was 50 years ago in real terms. If you’re going ask that people work you have to make work pay. I think Angie and Jewell feel disrespected by their wages. Angie at one point got a 9-cent raise, up to $8.99 and hour. It made her feel like she’s priced like the sales rack at Wal-Mart. She says it’s just an insult to her dignity. Jewell’s boyfriend Ken got more respect selling drugs than delivering pizzas. So there’s a sense that you’re kind of a chump to work for that kind of money.

MJ.com: Wisconsin’s W-2 program was hailed as one of the most successful programs in the country. But you paint quite a different picture.

JD: One place where I’d fault [the program] is that they privatized welfare without much oversight. I don’t particularly have a position about whether privatization is inherently good or bad, but where I fault [Tommy Thompson’s] administration is that they weren’t keeping an eye on what the agencies were doing. As long as the caseloads were going down the administration was happy, and inside some of those private agencies there was a dismaying record of negligence and waste, and none of it was rooted out by the state administrators overseeing the program.

For example, there was a long record of financial abuse. One of the agencies, Maximus, a for-profit company that trades on the NYSE, used several million dollars on an ad campaign promoting itself. It had billboards and bus ads, it was buying backpacks and golf balls emblazoned with its name — all of this with welfare funds. And most of this information came out as result of audits by the legislature, not by the state officials.

But more disturbing than that to me was how little actual casework occurred. They had very low caseloads and they were awash in federal money. At one point they were collecting more than $30,000 per case in federal funds. But there was just hardly any actual casework going on between those agencies and the clients. One of the women I profile was addicted to crack cocaine. At one point she was binging; she had sold off her furniture, her kids were going hungry, and she was smoking up her food stamps. When she went into the OIC to ask for help they told her, “Sorry we don’t take walk-ins. Come back and make an appointment.” She had six different caseworkers at three different agencies in the course of several years, none of whom ever figured out she was on drugs, even though it was in her case files. It was just a lack of basic casework — casework fails to adequately describe it. The lack of any kind of individualized attention or service out of the agencies was dismaying.

MJ.com: You write that “rising [economic] inequality has grown so familiar that it has lost he ability to startle.” Why is it so often overlooked?

JD: What was shocking to me was that after all these years of rising inequality, there was a tax bill passed that just so disproportionately affects people who are doing so incredibly well in this society. The idea that we would spend as much as we did to eliminate the Estate Tax when you have 40 million people without health insurance and other unmet social needs is hard to fathom.

In part it’s a new story and old story. The new story is terrorism; the national conversation since 9/11 is focused on national security, and that inevitably crowds out discussions of economic life, including discussions of economic inequality. The old story is that class only in rare moments becomes an issue in American politics. [T]he poorest people are disenfranchised from the process. Technically they can go to the polls and vote, but women I followed rarely — if ever — did; they felt [politics] to be unrelated to their own concerns. Most of the people making the decisions are people who benefit from them. There’s an economic self-interest — people who are making the decisions about distributing money upwards are benefiting from that system.

MJ.com: Do you feel that Angie and Jewell have a sense of independence now that they’re working?

JD: Both of them have felt that their work has brought some personal meaning and dignity to them. It was something that was talked a lot about in the welfare debate, and actually I would have to say that by and large it held true for them. Angie especially gets a lot of self-esteem out of being a worker. That’s a fairly strong plus, because the money has been mostly a wash. I don’t think they’re worse off than they were on welfare, but they’re sure working a lot harder for it and they don’t have a lot to show for it. I’d call that a draw.

The place where I’m a little more pessimistic is the idea that working mothers would become role models for their kids, that their children would inherit a different life trajectory. You could say that Angie and Jewell — at age 30 and without a high- school diploma — their economic lives had been set and maybe it’s unrealistic to think they’re going to go get to a certain place. But the purpose was to set their kids on a different life course. I don’t think that happened.

MJ.com: Some of the women you profile were themselves raised by working mothers.

JD: That was one of the surprises for me. They were raised by working mothers, but it didn’t keep them from dropping out of high school and becoming pregnant. At some point during the kid’s adolescence it just left them with less supervision.

MJ.com: How do suggest breaking this cycle?

It keeps coming back to the need for men. I think being a single parent anywhere is a difficult job, but to be a low-income single parent in the inner-city with 3 or 4 kids — that’s pretty close to my definition of an impossible job description. Add to it that Angie is working a second shift, so she’s gone at odd hours, and they live in a dangerous neighborhood. She needs someone to help her, she needs two incomes, she needs another set of hand and minds, another voice for her kids.

MJ.com: How did the men you talked to respond when these issues came up?

JD: I went to a class of men who were behind on child support. Rather than go to jail they had to attend this class, and one of the activities was to write their obituaries from the standpoint of their child’s perspective — kids who didn’t even know their fathers. And the guys choked up.

Programs for low-income men haven’t been very successful in raising employment and earnings, but one of the surprises that’s come out of those programs is how much the men seem to want to be a part of their kids’ lives. They have peer support groups where the men get together and talk about what their own experiences with their fathers were like, and the men seem to really like to participate in those. What that says to me and to others is that there is a yearning, in contrast to the stereotype of these men as callous or cavalier abandoners of their children. I think a lot of the men feel driven away by the mothers, who sometimes get in new relationships. Or they feel at a loss for their kids — they don’t make enough money to support [their kids] or be the kind of father they want to be. They regret having hostile relationships by their mothers or, in some cases, that they’re driven underground by the child support system. Men can have up to 60 percent of their wages taxed to pay child support arrears. I didn’t come away with an unsympathetic view of the men. I think they do want to connect and see the loss of their own fathers powerfully and they don’t want to repeat it with their kids even as a variety of forces leave them doing just that. It’s heartbreaking, actually.

MJ.com: Why aren’t the working poor as much of a focus as they were in the early 90s?

JD: One of the things [Clinton] hoped was that once welfare stopped being a lightning rod — once people could no longer complain about people getting a free ride — it would make for a more progressive politics, that once the country saw the needy as workers — not shirkers — it would open the gates for a more supportive politics of poverty.

To some extent that’s happened. The Earned Income Tax Credit is a large and secure program and it benefits workers. There’s been some modest expansion of health insurance to low-wage workers since the welfare bill passed. And there certainly isn’t the anger towards welfare; it’s not [such a] hot button issue anymore. There’s a kind of absence of anger and perhaps a lessening of racial malice. But there hasn’t yet been a positive campaign. I asked Clinton why that didn’t happen and his answer was succinct: “Because Al Gore lost the White House.”

I do think that having written about welfare and urban poverty for 15 years or more now, the politics are better now than when I began. I think there’s a general recognition that people like Angie and Jewell are not getting a free ride, that they’re out there working and their work is not sufficiently paying. Right now it’s just a vague sentiment, not a political platform. But it’s better than the white-hot anger of “hey these people are abusing the system and we need to go after them” mentality of the past. It’s a low-intensity sympathy that hasn’t been sufficiently mobilized or translated into a policy agenda, but it’s capable of being so.



Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and billionaires wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2023 demands.

payment methods


Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2023 demands.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.