MILWAUKEE -- Angela Jobe, 38, is a grandmother who has lived most of her adult life at ground zero of the struggle to ``end welfare as we know it.'' At about the time candidate Bill Clinton was promising to do that -- in autumn 1991 -- she boarded a bus in Chicago, heading for Milwaukee, lured by Wisconsin's larger benefits and lower rents. Unmarried, uneducated and unemployed, she already had three children and eight years on welfare.
Today she is in her ninth year of employment in a nursing home, earning $10.50 an hour. How she left welfare, and how her life did and did not change, is one of the entwined stories in Jason DeParle's riveting new book ``American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare,'' the fruit of DeParle's seven years of immersion in Jobe's world.
His subject is the attempt of welfare reformers, in Wisconsin and then Washington, to end the intergenerational transmission of poverty in the chaotic lives of fractured families. His book reads more like a searing novel of urban realism -- Theodore Dreiser comes to Milwaukee -- than a policy tract. His reporting refutes the 1930s paradigm of poverty -- the idea that the perennially poor are strivers like everyone else but are blocked by barriers unrelated to their behavior. Angie Jobe is not Tom Joad.
After the liberalization of welfare in the mid-1960s, the percentage of black children born to unmarried mothers reached 50 by 1976 (it is almost 70 today), and within a generation the welfare rolls quadrupled. But DeParle says people mistakenly thought people like Jobe were organizing their lives around having babies to get a check. Actually, he says, their lives were too disorganized for that.
What can help organize lives -- at least those that are organizable -- is work. The requirements of work -- mundane matters such as punctuality, politeness and hygiene -- are essential to the culture of freedom. The 1996 reform replaced a lifetime entitlement to welfare with a five-year limit, and called for states to experiment with work requirements. Welfare rolls have since declined more than 60 percent. DeParle writes: