A must-read for anyone who follows welfare-reform policy is Kay Hymowitz’s review in Commentary magazine of Jason DeParle’s new book American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare. DeParle follows the lives of three inner-city mothers forced out of welfare and into jobs after President Clinton signed the 1996 law abolishing the Aid to Families with Dependent Children. As both DeParle and Hymowitz point out, welfare reform, denounced by the entire feminist establishment and nearly all liberals, has been in many ways an astounding success, shrinking the welfare rolls by some 63 percent and affording some 3 million former recipients the pride and good habits aquired from supporting their children via honest work. Black and Hispanic poverty levels shrank to historic lows in 2001 despite the tech-bust recession that plagued that year.

Nonetheless, as Hymowitz notes, DeParle’s book also delineates the limited ability of government policy to change what we call the “culture of poverty”: the fatherless homes, haphazard child-rearing, and exposure to crime and drugs that mark inner-city life and have stunted the social and economic prospects of several generations of children. Hymowitz writes:

“Thanks to welfare reform, the work ethic may be on the rise in the inner city, but the same cannot be said of middle-class ideals of child-centeredness, probity, and cultural self-improvement. Many believed that these values were sapped by welfare. The hard lesson of American Dream is that work by itself will not bring them back.”

One of DeParle’s discoveries as he researched his book was that most women on the old welfare system weren’t the helpless souls of liberal stereotype who would be on the streets and starving along with their children when the cruel Republican Congress pulled their monthly checks. Many of these women women turned out to receiving welfare because…it was there, thanks to the efforts of a paternalistic and guilty-feeling public-assistance bureaucracy: Hymowitz writes:

“What observers had failed to grasp was that most recipients had never relied solely or even primarily on welfare payments; more than half of them worked during the course of a year. The three women profiled by DeParle get money from boyfriends, from sporadic stints in fast-food joints, from female cousins who camp out in their apartments, or from their boyfriends. When welfare disappears, they simply fall back on these other sources of income.”

When the Temporary Aid to Needy Families program replaced the old welfare system, most of the recipients who had counted on their no-questions-asked monthly check in the old days found the hassles and work-requirements built into the new system more trouble than they were worth and decided to fall back on their other resources and developed a more serious attitude toward their jobs.

“Angela Jobe is a perfect example. With an erratic but long work history unknown to the welfare system–a history that includes jobs at Popeye’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and even the post office–she matter-of-factly cashes her last welfare check and takes a position as an aide in a nursing home. Her response to the revolution that had kept policy mavens tossing at night? ‘I always work anyway….'”

“DeParle shows how Angela Jobe’s experience represents the sort of transformation that struck early skeptics like himself as little more than a fantasy. Although her job at the nursing home is wearying and backbreaking, DeParle is struck by how it helps her to transcend her isolation and ‘tap . . . a vein of energy and imagination dormant in other parts of her life.'”

Life still isn’t easy for these women struggling to better themselves and support their children on a combination of low wages and federal assistance for low-income earners. But as DeParle recognizes: How far can you go if you’re a high-school dropout with a couple of kids born out of wedlock? These women’s problems are as much cultural as anything else–they have to do with the absence of responsible men. Although welfare reform can accomplish many things, it can’t, all by itself, bring good husbands and fathers to the inner city. As Hymowitz writes:

“It is a measure of how far welfare reform has moved the debate that DeParle and others like him now support marriage initiatives they once would have scorned.

“Anti-poverty advocates often point to drug abuse and depression as the prime ‘barriers to work’ for poor women, but as DeParle observes, they neglect to mention the one he found the most destructive: what Angela calls the ‘too-cool, too-slick motherf—er men.’ From the segregation-era South to the post-welfare-reform Midwest, the husbands available to poor black women have often been unfaithful, drunken, abusive, pimping–or all of the above. Father-hunger is epidemic throughout American Dream, and the sobs that fill the car as DeParle drives Angela and her children home from visiting their father in jail echo hauntingly in the mind of the reader.”

Furthermore, as Hymowitz observes (but DeParle doesn’t seem to), inner-city women need, besides welfare reform, something that might be called “values reform” that no change in government policy can provide:

“Angela’s story suggests that being middle-class is as much a state of mind as it is a regular paycheck and a wedding ring. She demonstrates the ‘piss and vinegar’ that reformers hoped to instill in ex-recipients, but few of the other bourgeois virtues that have long allowed immigrants to leave the slums of the Lower East Side or Chinatown.

“Instead of using a tax windfall to buy the car she desperately needs to take her to a better-paying job, Angela spends it on Nintendo video games and bedroom furniture for her sons. Beyond keeping her children out of jail, she has few ambitions for them. She lets her crack-addicted cousin and alcoholic boyfriend move in with her and says nothing when her daughter befriends a prostitute. When DeParle asks her why she does not intervene, she answers huffily, ‘I’m not supposed to let my kids visit her ’cause that’s her chosen profession? . . . You don’t judge people about stuff like that!’ Married parents or no, it is a good bet that a child hanging out with cocaine addicts and prostitutes is not going to move up and out.”

Still, even if DeParle doesn’t get the whole story, as Hymowitz points out, he still tells a compelling story, and it’s one that the legion of those who still haven’t stopped griping about welfare reform ought to hear.