When she was removed from welfare, Opal was homeless, pregnant
and struggling with cocaine abuse, but she decided to look for a
job in a Wisconsin employment agency.
Upon arriving there, Opal was told that the office did not
provide walk-in advising and was asked to go home and schedule an
Opal’s story exemplifies both the strengths and weaknesses
that New York Times reporter Jason DeParle sees in the 1996 Welfare
Reform Act: The law encouraged the unemployed to look for jobs, but
failed to create the proper institutions to help them in the search
or to account for their children while they worked.
DeParle spoke to an audience of about 100 graduate students last
night in Rackham Amphitheater about his book “American Dream:
Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End
Welfare,” in which he tracks the stories of Opal and two
other women forced off welfare.
In 1992 then-President Bill Clinton introduced his plan to
“end welfare as we know it,” a popular slogan of his
election campaign. After four years of debate within the
Republican-led Congress, the Welfare Reform Act was passed.
The reforms were aimed at getting people off state support and
into the work force, and stressed the importance of “personal
responsibility,” DeParle said.
Nine million women and children were taken off the welfare rolls
due to the restructuring of the welfare system. DeParle’s
book tracks three such women, Angie, Opal and Jewell, and their
struggle to survive without welfare in urban Milwaukee, Wis.
“Angie had been on welfare for nearly 12 years when the
Welfare Reform Act passed. Within six months, she was a full-time
worker,” DeParle said. He used her story to demonstrate what
he believes to be the main success of the act — to get
low-skilled workers jobs.
DeParle’s lecture, like his book, dealt less with the
policy-making side of the issue and more with the real-life
consequences for the working poor.
DeParle said he “was a little skeptical at the time”
of Clinton’s belief that “work brings dignity, work
brings money, work brings structure.” His main criticism of
the effects of the act was that while it brought single mothers in
the workforce, children were often left at home alone.
Proponents of the act claimed that poor working mothers would
become rolemodels for their children, thus shaping them into
DeParle said he “didn’t find it true in the real
world.” Instead he found that children were left to fend for
themselves in neighborhoods populated by gangs and prostitutes.
He added that many of the women who did find work still
After the lecture, Sandra Danziger and Alfred Young, two public
policy professors, participated in a panel discussion that praised
Danziger supported DeParle’s observations with a catalog
of statistics comparing the state of single mothers in 1995 and in
2000. She claimed that with the new welfare reforms in place, the
poverty rate among uneducated single mothers dropped by just 8
Young challenged the myth that poor people are unmotivated to
work, alluding to Angie’s commitment to her job as a nursing
Several members of the audience praised both the lecture and
“This book has Pulitzer Prize written all over it,”
said Guy Stevens, an audience member and visiting scholar at the
National Poverty Center, a University-based research
— William Schneider and Sarah Zarowny contributed to
this report for the Daily.