Event Summary: The American Dream and Ending Welfare

September 22, 2004

A Brookings panel of experts today discussed New York Times reporter Jason DeParle’s new book, American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and A Nation’s Drive to End Welfare, which looks at the human impact of the 1996 welfare reform law.

In his book, DeParle follows three poor mothers living in Milwaukee and provides an intimate and detailed portrait of their lives, their children, and their romantic partners as they encounter the effects of welfare reform. DeParle’s case study provided the panelists with an opportunity to address some of the successes and shortcomings of the 1996 law.

Jodie Allen, managing editor for finance and science at U.S. News & World Report, called the bill “a huge ocean liner” and added that, eight years out, “you can find grounds for both optimism and pessimism.”

“It hasn’t worked as well as the advocates said it has,” said Rep. Charles Stenholm (D-Tex.), “nor as bad as the pessimists said it would.”

Stenholm’s colleague, Rep. E. Clay Shaw, Jr. (R-Fla.) called the pre-1996 welfare system deeply flawed for encouraging illegitimate children and unemployment. He said the 1996 law was “one of the proudest accomplishments of Congress in decades.”

Most speakers on the panel agreed that the bill was a significant—if incomplete—step forward. Stenholm, however, didn’t think that Congress would continue to advance similarly successful pieces of legislation. He said that the bipartisan atmosphere that made the 1996 bill possible was “totally missing from the current Congress.”

New York University Professor Lawrence Mead said the 1996 law was made possible by a change in the nature of the debate. “What mattered was a change in the message,” Mead said, adding that a message of “work and reliance” was necessary to achieve bipartisan support.

Democratic Leadership Council President Bruce Reed agreed, saying that the law’s success stemmed from “getting the values right.”

Author Debra Dickerson, however, didn’t share the panel’s enthusiasm for the 1996 law. “It is just about impossible to live on what welfare pays you,” Dickerson said. The program’s financial shortcomings, according to Dickerson, were especially frustrating in light of the fact that “we have all the money we need for the criminal justice system and the war on Iraq, but none for health care and day care…Where’s the outrage?”

Leon Dash, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said that the bill only addressed half of the problem facing the United States with regards to low-income citizens.. “While the welfare law has reduced the welfare rolls, the way to best help the poor remains an American dilemma.

Despite some of the improvements brought about by the 1996 bill, the panelists agreed that more work needed to be done, especially in the area of fatherhood.

“Moms can only go so far as role models if fathers don’t show up to be models as well,” Reed said. Reed, who served as President Clinton’s domestic policy advisor and helped write the 1996 law, added, “It breaks my heart that we’re not pulling out all the policy and cultural stops on fatherhood as we did on welfare…Single women don’t get to quit and neither should we.”

DeParle recalled a Wisconsin student who aspired to be a lawyer, simply to help get her father out of jail. In another incident recounted by DeParle, a grade-school student wrote a school essay about an abandoned mouse crying in the woods, only to later realize that it was really a symbol for his father that she was writing about.

Slate Contributing Writer Mickey Kaus said that some progress has been made on encouraging marriage, citing marriage rates that have risen from 20 percent to 23 percent. “That’s not chopped liver,” Kaus said. “It may not sound like much, but it’s a trend that hasn’t changed in the right direction in decades, and now it’s in changing in the right direction.”

Much of the current debate on welfare reauthorization has centered around whether to place greater emphasis on federal work requirements or marriage. DeParle urged Shaw to use his political capital to promote fatherhood, arguing that federal work requirements can be easily faked. He mentioned one woman in Wisconsin who was coded in the system as having met welfare work requirements, despite being pregnant in a crack house.

Panelists had other recommendations to help low-income people and get them off the welfare rolls. Stenholm said that the earned income tax credit was a good way to support workers without hurting small businesses. Stenholm also pushed education as a solution, hoping that citizens would “understand that if you don’t [get an education] you’ll be in an enormous economic pressure pot for the rest of your life.”

Stenholm said that U.S. immigration policy needed to be tweaked and Kaus said it was important to ensure that Americans were getting a first crack at jobs. Kaus added that legalizing drugs would help “eliminate the idea in the ghetto that selling drugs is what black men do.”

Dickerson, however, remained pessimistic about future progress. “I don’t see Americans caring that much about the people at the bottom,” she said. “Change is going to have to come from the bottom up.”