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What Happened to Welfare?


When Clinton promised to end welfare, most Americans, according to many polls and surveys, saw AFDC as a Democratic program that had contributed to the spread of unwed motherhood and economic dependency. Clinton’s long-term goal was to remove welfare from national political attention so that it would no longer cost the Democrats votes. His effort succeeded. By 2000, when George W. Bush was running against Al Gore, the welfare rolls had fallen from 4.8 to 2.2 million families, and welfare was no longer an issue in electoral politics. That remains true today.

Clinton also expected that it would be much easier to win political support for helping poor single mothers if they were working, and the abolition of AFDC was, in fact, accompanied by a big increase in assistance to the working poor. In 1993 Clinton persuaded Congress to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which can now raise the annual income of a low-wage worker with children by as much as 40 percent. TANF also gave states money that they could use to support child care for low-wage workers, and many states did so. A few days after passing welfare reform in 1996, the Republican Congress also approved an increase in the minimum wage.

Many liberals felt betrayed by Clinton’s decision to sign the welfare reform bill and blamed public hostility to AFDC on racism, which was certainly a factor. About two fifths of AFDC recipients were black, and the proportion was much higher in the large metropolitan areas, where the most influential newspapers and TV networks are located. Nonetheless, racism was not the only reason for the program’s unpopularity.

AFDC was at odds with three widely shared American views. First, instead of encouraging unmarried couples to marry if they conceived a child, it seemed to be rewarding them for not marrying, because marriage usually made couples ineligible for AFDC payments. Second, instead of encouraging recipients to work, AFDC reduced their benefits by about seventy cents for every dollar they earned. As a result, an unskilled mother who had to pay for child care if she worked was usually better off staying home. Third, AFDC seldom paid recipients enough to cover even the most basic expenses. As a result, most mothers supplemented their benefits by working “off the books” and getting money under the table from boyfriends or relatives.1 A program that encouraged unwed motherhood, idleness, and dishonesty was bound to be unpopular, even in places where all the recipients were white.

AFDC had not always been unpopular. When the program was created in 1935, most single mothers were widows, so supporting them was not seen as subsidizing sin. Most Americans also thought that a home needed a full-time homemaker, so few wanted single mothers to work. AFDC’s goal was to help widows retain custody of their children instead of having to break up their family when their husbands died.

But by 1996 less than 2 percent of AFDC recipients were widows and 60 percent had never been married to their child’s other parent.2 In addition, birth control and abortion were widely available, making it hard to argue that having a child out of wedlock was an accident that an unmarried woman could not avoid. Moreover, two thirds of all mothers were working, making it dangerous for any politician to argue that asking mothers to work would do their children irreparable harm.3

After Clinton was elected, he concentrated on health care reform before turning to welfare. That gave the administration a year to prepare a politically acceptable welfare reform proposal. Nonetheless, the task proved impossible, particularly after the failure of Clinton’s proposals for health care reform. Many liberal Democrats still opposed enforceable work requirements, and few Republicans saw any reason to help a Democratic president get credit for solving the welfare problem. With no consensus among Democratic legislators, action was postponed until after the 1994 elections, which gave the Republicans control of Congress.

After the elections the Republicans drafted a new welfare reform bill. Clinton’s welfare reform team had hoped to guarantee jobs for able-bodied welfare recipients who could not find work and child care for those who could. The Republicans wanted to save money, so they rejected these guarantees. Clinton vetoed several Republican bills as too harsh, but as the 1996 election approached he decided that the third Republican bill was better than no bill at all. At the time, I thought he should have vetoed it. For reasons I mention below, I now think he made the right decision.


American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare, is by far the best book about welfare reform that I have read. It has won a number of prizes, and it deserves them. Its author, Jason DeParle, covered Clinton’s welfare proposals for The New York Times during the 1992 campaign and then during Clinton’s first two years in office. Later, he reported for the Times on welfare reform in Wisconsin, where the governor, Tommy Thompson, was trying to put all welfare recipients to work.

American Dream brings together three related stories: the political struggle over welfare reform in Washington, Wisconsin’s efforts to move Milwaukee welfare recipients off the rolls, and the way these changes affected three black families in Milwaukee. The three families are at the heart of DeParle’s book. Their lives show both how much some things changed after welfare reform and how little difference these changes ultimately made to the three families.

The mother with whom DeParle spent the most time is Angela Jobe. Her mother, Charity, had grown up in Mississippi, finished high school in 1961, moved to Chicago, and found an office job at a commercial laundry. After Charity learned she was pregnant, she married Angie’s father, Roosevelt Jobe. When Angie was about to enter school, her parents bought a house in a relatively prosperous black neighborhood. A year later Charity transferred Angie to a Catholic school because she thought the public school’s teachers took no interest in their pupils.

Angie’s parents both worked steadily, but her life at home was difficult. Her father was alcoholic, violent, and promiscuous. Her mother was devout and wanted the children to succeed in school, but she tried to keep them in line by punishing them physically. When Angie was twelve, her parents divorced. After her mother remarried, Angie resented her new stepfather, moved to her father’s house, and started smoking marijuana. She also met Greg, who became the love of her life. In eleventh grade she became pregnant, dropped out of school, went on welfare, and moved in with Greg. She and Greg had two more children but never married.

When crack cocaine hit Chicago, Greg became a dealer. Then one of his friends asked him for help getting even with some men who had beaten him up. Another friend found some guns, and despite Angie’s objections Greg joined the posse. When his friends started shooting, they accidentally killed a fourteen-year-old bystander, Kathryn Miles. The prosecutor offered Greg a light sentence if he would testify against his friends, but despite Angie’s pleas Greg refused to do so. He was sentenced to sixty-five years. Without Greg’s earnings, Angie was in serious financial trouble, and a few months later, in September 1991, she moved to Milwaukee, where rents were lower and welfare benefits higher.4 Despite using birth control, she had a fourth child two years later, with a man whom she had already stopped seeing by the time she learned she was pregnant.

Angie was not a woman who “never had a chance.” Her mother was able to support her and encouraged her to continue at school. Like millions of other adolescents, she felt that her mother was too devout and moralistic, and, as she told DeParle, she found street life more exciting than home or school. After she moved in with Greg, she was unusually generous to her relatives and friends. In Chicago, when Greg’s pregnant sister Jewell needed a place to live, Angie took her in and became her closest friend. Jewell moved to Milwaukee with Angie in 1991.

In Milwaukee, when Jewell’s cousin Opal was living in a crack house and eight months pregnant, Angie also took Opal, her drug-dealing boyfriend, and their small daughter into her home. To fit everyone in, Angie asked her oldest daughter to share a bed with Opal. Even after Opal stole things from Angie’s children to get money for drugs, Angie let her stay, demanding only that Opal apologize to each of the children. Later, when the state took custody of Opal’s children, Angie adopted one of them, making herself responsible for a fifth child. Helping Opal left Angie with less time, less space, and less money for her own children.

Angie was also strongly committed to work. She had worked before welfare reform, because she needed more money than welfare provided. After Wisconsin officials told her she would have to work, she left the welfare rolls and worked full-time as an aide in a nursing home, a particularly tough job. DeParle reports that one nursing aide in six is injured every year, usually because lifting patients causes a back injury. But Angie got a lot of satisfaction from the job, and her supervisor told DeParle that she was unusually good at it. Even when she was depressed or hung over from drinking the night before, she went to work. Often she was gone before her children got up for school, which was probably one reason they missed more than one day of school out of every five. Nonetheless, after seven years at the nursing home she was making only $9 an hour. That was more than most former welfare recipients earned, but it was not enough to support the four (or later five) children for whom Angie was responsible.

Angie’s friends Jewell Reed and Opal Caples were the other two mothers DeParle came to know. Like Angie, they had grown up in Chicago and moved to Milwaukee for economic reasons. Like Angie, Jewell had never been married. Her first child was fathered by a man who later drifted away. The father of her second child was Greg’s friend Tony, who had fired the shots that killed Kathryn Miles and was serving an even longer sentence than Greg. Unlike Angie, Jewell dressed well, kept an orderly house, and disciplined her children. Although she went to work after Wisconsin officials told her she would have to do so, she got little satisfaction from her jobs. According to DeParle, she was a mother first, a husband-hunter second, and a worker only when she had no other choice.

Unlike either Angie or Jewell, Opal finished high school, briefly attended community college, and got married before having her first three children. She told DeParle that when she learned her husband had become a cocaine dealer she could not understand why people would destroy their lives by using drugs. Nonetheless, she herself became addicted to cocaine and was never able to break the habit for more than a few weeks. Opal was well-spoken and likable. She also seems to have been a convincing liar. When DeParle interviewed the case workers who were supposed to help her find work, only one of them realized that she was a cocaine addict, even though that fact was recorded in her file by one of the first social workers who dealt with her case. Nor did they figure out that her first three children were living in Chicago with their grandmother, or that she was living in a crack house with another child, giving birth soon after to two more. Eventually she had to give up custody of all her children, and Angie and Jewell lost track of her.

  1. 1

    See Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein, Making Ends Meet (Russell Sage, 1997).

  2. 2

    US House of Representatives, Committee on Ways and Means, 2004 Green Book (Government Printing Office, 2004), Chapter 7, p. 87.

  3. 3

    Employment rates are from US Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment Characteristics of Families: 1996,” Table 5, available at bls.gov/schedule/ archives/all_nr.htm#FAMEE.

  4. 4

    There has been intense controversy about how many welfare mothers move to states with higher welfare benefits. DeParle reports that in 1991 almost a quarter of Milwaukee’s new AFDC cases involved families that had moved to Wisconsin within the past three months.

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