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American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare Hardcover – September 9, 2004

4.4 out of 5 stars 41 customer reviews

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More than a decade after presidential candidate Bill Clinton floated the idea of ending "welfare as we know it," the changes to the system have become so accepted and entrenched that it is difficult to remember the heated controversy surrounding the issue of reform. Jason DeParle, a social policy reporter for The New York Times, forcefully brings the subject to life in American Dream, a moving and informed examination of the challenges, complexities, successes, and failures involved in fixing our nation's ailing welfare system. Tracing the lives of three women and their children as legislative changes are pushed through Washington and the state of Wisconsin, DeParle puts an extraordinarily human face on a subject that is too often prone to ideological oversimplification. As DeParle adeptly shows, their story "of adversity variously overcome, compounded, or merely endured ... embodies the story of welfare writ large."

The three compelling women at the heart of DeParle's narrative are vastly different temperamentally, yet they share the abstract qualities of strength and endurance, as well as extended family ties. DeParle paints their portraits with respect and sensitivity, and he provides a marvelous family history that reveals how "the story of welfare" is painfully "tangled in the story of race." Our glimpse at these difficult lives and the forces that profoundly shape them inspire an equal measure of hope and disappointment, and a large measure of outrage. As these remarkably resilient women struggle to raise their families, corruption is exposed in the very offices charged with implementing the newly adopted reforms. DeParle accepts that removing nine million women and children from the welfare rolls represents enormous progress. However, he simultaneously recognizes that we are dismally failing to confront a consequence of welfare reform: a new class of working poor. --Silvana Tropea

From Publishers Weekly

While campaigning for president in 1992, Bill Clinton vowed to "end welfare as we know it"; four years later, the much publicized slogan evolved into a law that sent nine million women and children off the rolls. New York Times reporter DeParle takes an eye-opening look at the controversial law through the lives of three black women affected by it, all part of the same extended family, and at the shapers of the policy. He moves back and forth between the women's tough Milwaukee neighborhoods and the strategy sessions and speeches of Clinton, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and others. But the best parts of the book are its slices of life: DeParle accompanies the women on trips to the dentist, on visits to loved ones in jail, to job-training workshops and on travels to Mississippi. He offers few solutions for breaking the cycle of poverty and dependency in America, but DeParle's large-scale conclusion is that moving poor women into the workforce contributed to declines in crime, teen pregnancy and crack use.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; 1st edition (September 9, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670892750
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670892754
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.4 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #817,198 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Andrew Olmsted on January 2, 2005
Format: Hardcover
American Dream chronicles the effects of the welfare reform bill on three women in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Deparle has done an excellent job of pulling together a history of black poverty and welfare, knocking down a number of shibboleths en route to his conclusion. No matter which side of the argument you find yourself, Deparle's research will probably undermine certain things you thought were true, and force you to rethink how to approach the brutally difficult problem of poverty in America.

American Drean is at turns inspiring, frustrating, and unsatisfying. The hard work and occasional successes of Deparle's subjects cannot fail to remind the reader of the amazing ability of humans to overcome obstacles placed in their path. The dismal job done by welfare, whether pre- or post-reform to actually help people will infuriate the reader, as even people who believe that government has no business trying to support the poor would like to see such programs that exist do well, and to see the poor given every opportunity to improve their lot. Ultimately, American Dream cannot help but be unsatisfying to the reader, because Deparle offers no false ending to his story: these women continue to struggle even today (George Will recently mentioned one of them in an op-ed piece), and their struggle will undoubtedly be with them to the end of their lives.

Deparle deserves credit for neither sugarcoating the problem nor penning a jeremiad. His story simply presents a collection of successes and failures, painted against the backdrop of welfare and welfare reform. American Dream notes the massive obstacles the poor face in attempting to break out of poverty, obstacles those of us in the middle class often have no familiarity with.
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Format: Hardcover
In American Dream DeParle provides us with a historical overview of welfare policy from the signing of the Social Security Act in 1935 to the Signing of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. Against this backdrop he interweaves the personal narratives of three single mom's who are trying to make their way on, through and off of welfare, while juggling the complexities of the social and political economy of welfare, work-fare (workfirst) and the warfare of the streets.

Trying to assess if we have, in fact, "ended welfare as we know it," DeParle boldly challenges the nation to push beyond its stereotypic one-dimensional view of welfare moms as largely African American, lazy, angry, single mothers eager to manipulate and get over on the system. Instead, DeParle does something really astounding...he tells us the truth-no filters, no screens, no smoke and mirrors, just the truth-a real picture of real women who are strong, and determined, and yes, angry, and also creative and frightened and proud and resilient. Women working really hard at trying to make sense of their own personal truth, their life experiences on welfare, and figuring out how to survive it. It's not necessarily a pretty picture, but it's a real picture, and it's an honest picture. And, for those who grew up in poverty and on welfare, it provides an opportunity to redeem their past with a sense of dignity and integrity. This is a must read for anyone interested in government, politics, welfare policy and the truth about life in the subculture of poverty in America.
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By Reader on December 24, 2005
Format: Paperback
I assigned "American Dream" in a senior seminar I taught in the fall 2005 semester on Children's Health, Education & Welfare. My students went out of their way to convey to me how much they loved this book. I did too. Books on welfare reform tend to fall into either the numbing statistical variety (very academic) or emotional and anecdotal variety. DeParle's book is that rare one that combines both varieties with exceptional writing. Few academics write as well as DeParle and few journalists know as much as he does about welfare reform. For my money, this is one of the very best books on public policy, generally, and welfare reform, specifically. There are also 2 excellent PBS Newshour segments available online that profile both DeParle and the lives of the people he chronicles. Together with the book, the PBS segments make for a great week or two of teaching welfare reform.
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Format: Hardcover
Even though I am an avid reader, I have never written a customer book review before. However, this book proved to be a thoroughly interesting read as well as a thoughtful and provoking look inside the lives of people most directly impacted by Welfare Reform - and served as a clear starting point for reflections. The descriptions of the activities within the beltway, as well as within the three women's homes, serve to bring `wonk' material to a very real level. With extraordinary (seven-years!) of personal and policy research, the book should be read by all who are involved in making and re-making human service policy, as well as those of us who vote for them.
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Format: Hardcover
Two minutes after cracking open 'American Dream' you realize that Jason DeParle is a phenomenal writer. But even more important, he's got an incredible story to tell: the story of how welfare reform took on a momentum never before known in our country and how the changes it wrought impacted the lives of very real women and their families. In his book, DeParle asks the difficult questions: Has welfare reform improved the lives of families formerly on welfare? Has the experience of children seeing their mothers going to work had a positive influence on their lives? Has outsourcing the management of caseloads to for-profit companies proven to be a success? What can be done to motivate far more men to pursue well-paying jobs and remain an integral part of their children's lives? DeParle doesn't come up with any easy answers, though he tells the story of welfare reform and its impact in a powerfully compelling way -- from an historial standpoint, from a public policy standpoint and from the personal standpoints of those who sought work after their welfare benefits ran out. What I found most compelling were the very human portraits of the women he profiles -- Angie, Jewel and Opal. I was moved, educated and motivated by this book. Definitely a must buy -- and do go and share it with your friends and family.
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