Thinking About Welfare Reform

I recently read an excellent book about welfare reform in the 1990s: American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare by Jason DeParle. DeParle is a journalist who covered the welfare reform process, so he had a front row seat to the happenings. One thing that I really liked about this book, and that I find that I generally like about non-fiction by journalists, is that there was this really good mix of facts and hard evidence with the personal stories of three real women on welfare and their experience with reform.

As your average bleeding heart liberal, I am pro-welfare, but I hadn’t really ever read or even thought about it much. A social safety net is a good thing, but I don’t know that as a society we’ve figured out how best to achieve that. (That said, even an inefficient safety net is better than no net at all).

In any event, American Dream gave me lots to think about and these are a few of the points that have really stuck with me:

  1. Work isn’t necessarily a transcendent “good” thing.

    This was my first “whoa” moment in the book. DeParle is setting out the history of the three women’s families and tracing them all the way back to slavery. DeParle points out that for these women, there was no automatic association of working as a way to get ahead. Their families had worked very hard during slavery, and then later as sharecroppers with no real positive gains to show for it. When life has taught you that hard work only leads to more hard work, it’s hard to see that as the solution to life’s woes.

  2. Welfare allows women to be “independent” of abusive men and exploitive employers.

    This is pretty straightforward, but not something that I had really thought about before. Welfare opponents talk a lot about welfare recipients being dependent on the state, but there isn’t really much discussion of the ways in which welfare makes women independent. It enables women to have some financial support when they are leaving abusive relationships and ensures that they don’t have to stay in awful jobs with employers who are abusing or exploiting things. This independence is a very good thing and should really be looked at as one of the benefits of welfare.

  3. Health care is a big issue for poor women – and one instance where they were better off on welfare than working.

    Both the individual women in DeParle’s book and, statistically, women moving from welfare to work in general, did better financially working than they did on welfare. However, they almost all lost their health insurance. They were covered by Medicaid while on welfare, and most went to jobs that didn’t provide health insurance. In the case of a medical emergency, these women were significantly worse off working than they had been on welfare. Another reason why health care reform is so important.

  4. You can’t solve the issue of poor families without taking a looking at the men in them.

    The male partners of the women that DeParle profiled had all spent time in jail. This was the main cause of them operating as single parents – a partner who was imprisoned. All of the men in these women’s life either currently or previously had dealt drugs (One of the women is quoted as saying something like that this didn’t bother her, it was the job of every black man she knew). It’s easy to decry these folks as criminals, but there were definite negative effects for these families when one parent and the primary provider was suddenly thrown in jail. I think that rather than focusing on “marriage promotion” (only one of the three women was married to her significant other, but all lived and parented with them), perhaps that money would be better spent providing job training and opportunities for poor men. I will not begin to pretend that I know how best to make that work, but I think it’s a much better thing to try to find a solution to a clear need (for gainful, legal employment), than to punish people for turning to the only source of income they can find. (I still think drug dealing should be illegal and punishable by law, it just seems like we are expecting a problem to solve itself simply by saying that an action is wrong.)

  5. Working did not necessarily make life any better for these women’s children. In some cases, it made it worse.

    When these women were on welfare, they were home with their children much more often. Reliable affordable child care is difficult to find and the result for many children was that they were left alone or in the care of questionable adults. DeParle hypothesized that while working did bring positive results to many of the women who worked (a sense of pride and accomplishment, a little more money to work with), that for their children it mainly brought more time alone in bad neighborhoods. I think this is counter to the intent of the law (and most folks hopes for the path from welfare to work) and is something else for legislators to look at – how to provide better, subsidized child care and after school programs for these children.

If you are interested in social policy at all, I really recommend this book

Thinking About Welfare Reform

Tomato Glut Sauce

Yesterday, I was faced with one of those “it’s a good problem to have” problems. We had Too Many Tomatoes (this was the actual title of a cookbook that my mom had when I was little). The tomato plants in our garden have really started producing, plus we had a bunch of tomatoes from the CSA.

This was mostly a problem because we will are heading on vacation and I didn’t want to come back to rotting tomatoes. Clearly the only answer is to make tomato sauce!

Earlier this year, I read a memoir, This Organic Life by Joan Dye Gussow. It’s an interesting book focused mainly on the development of their home garden over the years – and it includes recipes. One was for “Tomato Glut Sauce”, and the second I saw it I thought, I should copy this, it may come in handy one day. So when I realized that we had a surplus of tomatoes, I knew just what to do.

I chopped up the tomatoes we had on hand, and mixed them with carrots and onions (also from the CSA), herbs (parsley, basil, oregano, and lemon thyme from our garden, bay leaf from the store), and vinegar (the recipe called for 6 tablespoons of balsamic, but I only had 3 tablespoons worth, so I did half balsamic/half red wine vinegar).

uncooked tomato sauce

The veggies roasted together until they were all soft (that took about 1 hour 15 minutes for the carrots, next time I’ll cut them smaller).

roasted tomato sauce

Finally I blended them all together in the food processor. The sauce isn’t much to look at (the vinegar and the varied tomato colors make it more brown than red), but it smells and tastes delicious. I can’t wait to use it in lasagna once the weather cools down a little.

tomato sauce

Tomato Glut Sauce

Farewell, My Blue Jeans


I’ve had these blue jeans for 3 years. Not an eternity, but long enough to feel nostalgic. I bought them at a Levi’s outlet in Las Vegas, shopping with my host family. The back pocket has been wearing out for a while. It’s always the first thing to go on jeans of mine. My wallet rubs a hole in it even while the rest of the pants look brand new. That’s not what’s done this pair in though. I put them on yesterday and discovered that the seam had come apart on the side and inch long slit of my extra-pale right hip was now visible. Clearly it’s time for them to go.

Here’s the thing. I was wearing these pants on the night the apartment burned down. Or rather, I put them on when the fire alarm went off, waking me up, propelling me out of bed, out of the apartment, into the cool night away from the smoky building. I worried about wearing enough to be outside for an hour or two – the jeans, my winter coat, a pair of real shoes, not slippers or flip flops – but I didn’t have socks, I was wearing the tank top I had been sleeping in, I didn’t grab my phone (although Jami did, thank goodness). You see I thought we’d be going back in – at first soon, then as the fire burned on, as I could see the firefighter leaning out our window, as the flames began to shoot out of the windows of an apartment down the hall from us, I thought we would be back in eventually.

There is something to be said for losing everything you own in a fire. I’m not being flip either. If you, like most people, have a complicated relationship to stuff: Objects you hate, but can’t get rid of because they remind you of someone or something… Things that you just don’t know what to do with… Knickknacks that you’ve totally forgotten you even ever had… Well, a fire simplifies those things. No decisions to make. No sorting to do. I miss some things, although less than you might imagine. And I feel lucky, blessed even, with how our life post-fire has gone. I had renter’s insurance, unlike 90% of my neighbors. We had already signed on the house, so we had someplace to move, and we were able to move up the closing and get settled even sooner. We (Jami, the dog, and I) were all safe and healthy and together. If you have to live through a fire (and I recommend that you don’t), you really couldn’t do any better than we have done. And I am so incredibly grateful.

It’s hard to say good-bye the jeans though. I still have the tank top I was wearing, the shoes, the winter coat. But I can see a point in the future, not even very far in the future, when I won’t have any of those things any more. And when that happens, I won’t have anything left that I owned in my adult life before the age of 29 and 3/4 – and that is just weird. Not bad. Not a thing to feel sad about – but still a thing that feels like it needs to be paid some deference, a strange quirk of my life that needs to be acknowledged.

I will miss those jeans.

Farewell, My Blue Jeans