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American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare

4.05  ·  Rating Details  ·  681 Ratings  ·  87 Reviews
In this definitive work, two-time Pulitzer finalist Jason DeParle cuts between the mean streets of Milwaukee and the corridors of Washington to produce a masterpiece of literary journalism. At the heart of the story are three cousins whose different lives follow similar trajectories. Leaving welfare, Angie puts her heart in her work. Jewell bets on an imprisoned man. Opal ...more
Paperback, 422 pages
Published August 30th 2005 by Penguin Books (first published 2004)
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Jan 22, 2016 Michael rated it it was amazing
It took me two weeks to read this book, which is a bit unusual. I kept putting it down at first, not because it's bad, but because it was bothering me so much. American Dream is a book about public policy, but it's told in a narrative fashion. The author--the 'poverty reporter' for the New York Times, traces the lives of three young women living in Milwaukee during the 1990s during the end of the federal welfare program. I've previously read a very comprehensive policy book on anti-poverty progr ...more
Jan 03, 2010 Lobstergirl rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: people interested in real life effects of social policy
This book - about the effects on three Milwaukee families of Clinton's drive to radically alter welfare in the 1990s by making women work - grew on me. I think perhaps it could be better organized; it flops around chronologically and topically, and the subject matter would be better served by something more linear. The book focuses on three women, but there are enough relatives, ancestors, husbands, boyfriends, lovers, and crack addict buddies that clarity and simplicity in the narrative become ...more
Jan 27, 2008 Jcigna rated it liked it
This book told the tale of Three Welfare Mothers right before welfare reform. What I learned from this book is to not extrapolate from their tales what it means to be on welfare and a mother. They are not characters, they are three individuals who don't represent anybody but themselves.

DeParle does a fantastic job at describing and humanizing three women who were demonized by congress and pundits; the archetypes which led to welfare's upheaval. But we must realize that they were not the normal
Larry Bassett
Jul 02, 2010 Larry Bassett rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: social-action
I have been a welfare worker in 1969 and 2007. This book is true to life.

My assessment of the lying/cheating aspect of welfare based on my experience as a worker is this: Welfare is like gambling. You can give incorrect information or omit to give some required bit of information. If you are not "caught," you will get more money. Welfare is usually below subsistence level. If you are a mother and your children are suffering (whatever your definition is), you might elect to withhold or provide fa
Dec 18, 2008 Anjali rated it really liked it
I picked this book off my reading list for Bryan Stevenson's Race, Poverty, & Criminal Justice class. I don't usually read non-fiction, but I may make future exceptions for books recommended by Bryan Stevenson.

Jason DeParle is a journalist who covered welfare for the NY Times. The book describes the political events surrounding the passage of the welfare bill in the 1990s and follows its effect on three Black women who were receiving welfare at the time. I found the political sections kind o
Jul 11, 2010 Tim rated it really liked it
This really was journalism at its best, weaving small scale personal stories into a broader narrative. I opposed the "W-2" welfare reform effort to eliminate welfare in Wisconsin, and I think this book justifies my opposition: the program was obviously corrupt from the start (I suspect "privatization" efforts often are) and the purpose of the program was not ending poverty, just ending welfare. Yet the book is pretty honest in also justifying the drive to end welfare as a (possibly) legitimate g ...more
Sep 29, 2015 Summer rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This reporter starting following these three families when Clinton started talking about "ending welfare as we know it". They had each been drawing cash aid in the beginning. By the end of the story, none of them were.

He traces one family's roots back to a slave named Frank Caples. He is the great-great grandfather to two of the book's main characters. After slavery he and his children and grandchildren are sharecroppers. This book focuses on the branch of the family that went north, but frankl
Leif Erik
Jan 14, 2008 Leif Erik rated it really liked it
Shelves: required-reading
Assigned in my Poli-Sci Public Issues class. Interesting account of welfare reform, taking in the big picture and the human scale. You definately get a sense of what welfare is actually about, as compared to the demonizing & sob stories that normally surround the issue. The facts on the ground will challenge your assumptions no matter what ideological baggage you carry.
Apr 22, 2014 Ed rated it really liked it
Excellent book. I read this closely several years ago and came away unimpressed, perhaps because I was hoping it'd be as great as Nicholas Lemann's "The Promised Land" (1991), one of my all-time favorites.

Now, after further reflection — and having typed-up 40,000 words of notes from "American Dream" — I'm substantially raising my opinion of this book. I think it ranks right up there with "The Promised Land" and Elijah Anderson's great book "Code of The Streets" (1999).

DeParle in 2004 was not n
This should be called"American Nightmare..." The end the book is the most chaotic for each of the women highlighted in the story. Opal is more involved in her drug-induced stupor. Angie is trying to work several jobs just to make ends meet, and at one time has 17 people in the house! Jewell keeps herself removed from Opal, and has her own issues.

This is a very comprehensive look at America's impoverished and the welfare system that serves them. To outsiders, removing individuals from the rolls
Lisa Lewis
Sep 21, 2015 Lisa Lewis rated it really liked it
This book was a really well-written, engaging view of welfare reform as seen through the lives of three women living in Milwaukee. DeParle is (was?) a journalist for the New York Times and has been reporting on poverty and urban life for decades; in this book he pulls together a perspective that combines personal stories through several generations and places them in the social and political context of American society throughout the 80s 90s and early 2000s. Sounds dry and academic, but I promis ...more
Sep 09, 2012 Amber rated it liked it
Oh man, was I conflicted about this book. It is intricately researched and reported, and I learned a ton about the trajectory of welfare reform, which I was too young to remember as it happened. And the author does a fantastic job following the lives of three women on welfare in Milwaukee, weaving their stories with changes in both national and state-level policy.

Despite how well constructed it is, though, the book ultimately disappointed me. In the scheme of Americans, I'm probably slightly lef
Rebecca Brooker
Apr 24, 2012 Rebecca Brooker rated it really liked it
In all honesty, this is a disheartening but interesting look at welfare in the US from its inception through the Clinton administration's eager drive to put welfare mothers into jobs. Readers get a brief history of the purpose of the system, its entanglement with the post-slavery era, a vivid look at three mothers who survive - to some extent - the changes in welfare under Clinton, and an inarguable look at a broken system that will be difficult to change. DeParle's writing weaves facts with per ...more
Ellen Pierson
Feb 11, 2014 Ellen Pierson rated it it was amazing
Jason DeParle came to the Welfare beat with years of journalistic experience and a perspective that one would probably more or less expect from a New York Times reporter. The story he compiled after a decade of research – a decade during which his subjects persevered on and off the welfare rolls despite disappointments and setbacks – defies easy ideological classification. It says something when the Times and the National Review both praise your book. Mainly, it says that the challenges of entr ...more
Feb 12, 2009 Erin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was a really interesting book about gave a brief history of how the program was originally meant as a transitional program for white widows with children to use temporarily until their husband's social security kicked in..eventually it was transferred to an entitlement program for minorities and became the worst drain on the American taxpayer possible. During the Clinton administration, Republicans forced him to create a path to work for welafre recipiants with time ...more
Jul 09, 2012 Charlotte rated it it was amazing
The author has written an interesting and informative book about welfare and welfare reform. The author brought the understanding of welfare reform to life by interweaving discussion of policy and politics with stories about the lives of three women in Milwaukee on welfare. The three women who the author followed were sympathetically yet realistically portrayed as complex human beings trying to do the best they can within the circumstances they live in.

This book has managed to reaffirm my belie
Dec 20, 2007 Abby rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: people interested in welfare and social justice
Shelves: non-fiction
A detailed, if somewhat outdated, account of welfare and welfare reform/dissolution.

The author has been covering poverty in the U.S. for the New York Times for years (15?), and therefore has personalized and contextualized knowledge of the issues. This book alternates between the politics of welfare and the stories of 3 Midwestern women, which is a really nice method for humanizing the policies and explaining how these women are subject to economic forces beyond their control. The stories of the
Apr 26, 2012 Katie rated it really liked it
A complex, in depth and even-handed look at the transition from AFDC to TANF nationally and locally. DeParle balances extensively researched statistics and interviews with policy wonks and politicians (as poverty correspondent for the NYT he is very well connected) with the story of 3 women and their families on welfare in Milwaukee. I found it particularly interesting because so much of the book involved WI and Milwaukee.

His conclusion is that TANF did push women off welfare and on to (mostly l
May 23, 2012 Chrisiant rated it really liked it
Good comprehensive and accessible narrative non-fiction. Having been roughly 9 years old when the big Welfare Bill was passed in 1994, I don't have a clear sense of how it happened or the relevant political fights that were going on at the time. Several chapters outlined that process, in a clear and relatively colorful way (for a description of a legislative fight).

I found lots of striking information in the stories of the three women: their sense of themselves as strong, scrappy problem-solvers
Jan 01, 2008 Peggy rated it really liked it
Shelves: recently-read
A bit repetitive at times, but this book did a good job of showing me, a largely bleeding heart liberal, exactly HOW welfare reform failed. For one, the author makes a point that many welfare recipients were secretly working on the side anyway, because neither welfare alone nor a minimum wage job alone was enough for these families to make it. So for all the "success" claimed by the politicians in terms of the reform pushing folks off of welfare rolls and into jobs, the book makes the argument t ...more
Blaine Morrow
Mar 07, 2015 Blaine Morrow rated it really liked it
DeParle presents the political backdrop for the end of welfare and an inside look at three women and their families who were directly affected by the policy changes. Their stories are complicated and - best of all - real: they're human beings who try to make the best of tough situations and difficult choices. The book will not convince anyone of the merits or lack thereof of welfare policies. It will demonstrate how difficult and complex it is to help the poor.
Mar 06, 2015 Amona rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2015
Who knew there were so many ins and outs to the welfare process! And, of course, that white folks were so obsessed with abolishing it.I'm glad this wasn't just a book about policy but delved into the situations of real life hardships of women suffering from generational poverty.
The years the author was able to track of these women created snapshot of a lifetime. Informative and personable in many ways.
Jan 09, 2011 Ocean rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
as someone who works in the welfare field, this book taught me a lot. i learned a lot about the controversial welfare reform going on in the 90's, largely blamed on bill clinton (although this book shows the actual process of that whole mess, & it's a lot more complicated than just clinton.) the author also profiles an extended family who was on welfare before the reforms & then was kicked off the rolls. this part is where the book shines. unlike many pieces i've read about welfare recip ...more
Michele :)
Apr 23, 2008 Michele :) rated it it was amazing
I absolutly loved this book. As a single mother in Wisconsin who has struggled to make ends meet for the last 9 years this book really spoke to me. DeParle follows four young women and their children for an extended period of time in Milwaukee, Wisconsin through "welfare reform". The book critically examines issues of job training, education, economic support, and other daily struggles poor mothers and thier children face. DeParle is close enough to the women he followed to be able to shed some ...more
Apr 28, 2009 Amanda rated it liked it
This is both a good study of the welfare-to-work program from a journalistic perspective, but also a window into just how hard it is to be a member of the truly working poor. The story centered on three (mostly) single moms trying to raise their families and survive after Clinton's push to "end welfare as we know it". I felt varying degrees of empathy and exasperation for the characters - on the one hand, you see how hard these women work just to hold things together and prioritize the things in ...more
Apr 24, 2009 Kate rated it really liked it
Very complete look at welfare reform, and the problems several women encountered in Milwaukee trying to leave welfare in the 1990s immediately after President Clinton and the Republicans overhauled AFDC.

Also goes into the history of the program, how it came to be overwhelmingly tangled in the issue of race, behind the scenes maneuvering in Washington within the Clinton Administration and between the right-wing Congress.

I'm making this sound like a sort of dry book but it's not at all; I read i
Oct 23, 2007 Elyssa rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction, sociology
This book should be listed among my all-time favorites. I learned more about the welfare system and its history from American Dream. In the beginning of the book, the author shows the complex relationship between slavery/race and today's welfare system. This was a major paradigm shift for me and reframed the way I view the welfare system.

The author goes on to beautifully weave the personal stories of three welfare recipients with the transformations of the welfare system, particularly the imple
Mar 26, 2008 Katy rated it liked it
For the past ten years I have worked with a lot of kids and families on welfare and in poverty, without actually living that way myself. I keep searching for a new perspective on it - something that will click in my mind and give me a new direction for how I can help, educate, inspire, whatever it is that I should do to make a positive difference.

This book didn't really clear any of that up for me, but what it does do is look at the actions of some (i.e Clinton administration), which may have t
Asma Ish
Mar 30, 2016 Asma Ish rated it it was amazing
Loved this book. Anyone who stereotypes individuals on public assistance and thinks that they are "lazy" or looking for "freebies" must read this book. This book is such an eye opener.
David Quinn
Mar 22, 2014 David Quinn rated it liked it
Overall a good and interesting book if a bit uneven. The sections on the politics of welfare in the first half of the book were necessary and illuminating but a bit dry. The stories of the three women were generally good but felt somewhat rushed and muddled at times. The final third of the book was excellent, particularly the author’s insights into the impact of welfare reform on the people profiled.

Some other books (all of which I preferred) that overlapped the themes in this book which I’d rec
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Jason DeParle is a senior writer at The New York Times and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine. A graduate of Duke University, DeParle won a George Polk Award in 1999 for his reporting on the welfare system and was a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Nancy-Ann, and their two sons.
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