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Updated 11:00 AM September 27, 2004
 

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Jason DeParle speech Sept. 28
Has welfare-to-work worked?



"The Concordia Street house was a shambles. The second-floor balcony dropped rails like rotted teeth, and so many roaches swarmed about that Opal lay awake worried that one would crawl in Brierra's ear. Angie blamed the landlord for not fixing things. The landlord blamed Angie for not paying the rent and tried to evict her twice."
—Excerpt from Jason DeParle's new book, "American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare."

Low-income, low-skilled women found work after the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, but their hardships didn't end when they gained employment, a New York Times reporter and author says.

Jason DeParle, who writes about poverty, says many gains made by women leaving welfare were offset by new costs, long hours, lack of health insurance and difficulty finding affordable child care.

"Mothers going to work didn't change the family dynamics," says DeParle, who focused the book "American Dream" on three mothers who are cousins.
"The problems didn't begin with welfare. They didn't end with welfare." —Jason DeParle

DeParle's book examines the results of the controversial 1996 act, which led to an unprecedented change in social policy. His lecture about issues in the book, sponsored by the U-M National Poverty Center (NPC), is 7 p.m. Sept. 28 in the Rackham Amphitheatre.

Welfare reform succeeded in changing the culture of the welfare system from one in which recipients relied on government payments to one in which they must rely on their own earnings or the earnings of family members, says Sheldon Danziger, NPC co-director.

"Most welfare recipients were able to move from welfare to work, especially when unemployment rates were low," Danziger says. "However, as DeParle emphasizes, most of those women still struggled to make ends meet."

Once topics of discussion during presidential campaigns, welfare and social policy have been muted as America focuses its attention on terrorism, international affairs and the economy, says Rebecca Blank, NPC co-director.

"In this environment, it is perhaps not surprising that neither (presidential) candidate has spent much time discussing issues of poverty and policy," says Blank, dean of the Ford School of Public Policy.

For seven years, DeParle investigated the downside of welfare reform by following the lives of cousins Angie Jobe, Opal Caples and Jewell Reed. He traced their stories back six generations—beginning with a common ancestor, a Mississippi slave—and showed their struggles (hunger, drugs, crime) as they raised 10 children in one extended family in Milwaukee.

"Most of the social disorders attributed to welfare were present in sharecropping society," he says. "The problems didn't begin with welfare. They didn't end with welfare."

DeParle says he wants to see three policies implemented: more work support—such as child care—to help low-skilled women who can't earn enough money to be self-sufficient; funding for after-school programs so kids aren't home alone while their mothers work; and more assistance for men.

"Job programs for fathers and boyfriends—particularly men with criminal records—are as important as programs for women," Blank says. "We need 'jail to work' programs as much as we need 'welfare to work.'"

DeParle's lecture is free and open to the public. For additional information about him, visit http://jasondeparle.com/.

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