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Jason DeParle

     ... reporter. Jason DeParle has covered issues and policy surrounding poverty in the United States for the New York Times, for which he is a senior writer and frequent contributor to it's magazine. He crystallized his expertise and experience in American Dream: Three Woman, Ten Kids and Welfare Reform. He has also written for The New Republic, the Washington Monthly and The Times-Picayune. A former Henry Luce Scholar, Mr. DeParle's reporting on the welfare system was recognized in both 1995 and 1998 when he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.


What ever happened to "welfare"? Reporter Jason DeParle set out to track the results of "welfare reform." No one ever lived on a welfare check in America, Mr. DeParle assures us -- it paid too little to live on and it despised the people who took it. So women juggled what welfare dollars they got with income from jobs and men. When welfare went away, they adapted, taking low-wage jobs in numbers that surprised practically everyone.
When Mr. DeParle began putting together both "bottom-up" stories of real people and "top-down" reports of the politics that surrounded the once-hot issue, he says he was thinking about the women and children who were served by "Aid to Families with Dependent Children" -- "welfare." When he had finished and assessed where welfare-to-work had led, he was thinking about men.


To the extent that Jason DeParle sees several major public policy agenda opportunities, he says he would rank at the top 1.) a series of efforts to raise the incomes of low-income, low-skilled men and 2.) efforts to reconnect those men to their families. Addressing systemic challenges men in many poor communities face would be a significant point of entry for addressing the ills associated with America's rapidly growing underclass.

Mr. DeParle says he sees two glimmers of hope. One is just the sheer resilient strength and fortitude of the nation's "Angie"s. No one would have predicted she would have moved into her nurses' aide work so eagerly, done it as well and as long as she has. That's something to believe in, Mr. DeParle says. And he reports there have been some advances in public policy, particularly the expansion of the earned-income tax credit, expansion of some kinds of health care for low-wage workers and child-care. It's not enough, he says, but there is something to build on.

But Jason DeParle knew there was more to his story than those in need. Since each state did things differently, he focused on the most celebrated of the "reform" approaches, that of the State of Wisconsin whose former governor Tommy Thompson led the “reforms” and became head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services which administered the new approaches.

What came next was a great deal of privatization." Services once provided by States were handed over to non-profit and to for-profit organizations. Hundreds of millions of dollars flooded into States from the federal government to fund the new "welfare reform" programs. The money got spent all right. But it did not get spent on the women and children. The resulting scandals ran from massive financial fraud to caseworkers run amok and entire agencies out of control. Sadly, real opportunities to meet real human needs were squandered along with millions of tax-payer dollars.

Mr. DeParle leaves on a hopeful note. Neither conservatives nor liberals, he's convinced, can say "That's OK" when hardworking women can't pay their electric bills or feed their kids because they make so little for working so much


[This Program was recorded October 29, 2004, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

Conversation 1

Jason DeParle describes the important and little-known story-behind-the-story of welfare in America for Paula Gordon and Bill Russell.

Conversation 1 RealAudio6:17

Conversation 2


Listing the negative associations once attached to welfare," Mr. DeParle directly connects each one to people's experiences on Southern plantations about which he learned first hand, from stories of violence and rape to 13 year olds having babies, long before "welfare" existed. Mr. DeParle describes a struggling rural underclass, kept that way by landowners like Mississippi's Senator James Eastland to assure themselves a cheap, passive labor force working their fields. Mr. DeParle describes the points at which he believes both conservatives and liberals were correct in some of their approaches to "welfare," having told the story of "welfare reform" both from the top-down and the bottom-up.

Conversation 1 RealAudio12:09

Conversation 3

For a brief moment, "Aid to Families with Dependent Children" ("welfare") was a badge of prestige, Mr. DeParle discovered. But the larger reality in America, he found, is that giving out cash aid seems to always raise suspicions. He describes how the conservative critique of welfare changed from Reagan to Gingrich. Nobody ever lived on a welfare check, Mr. DeParle declares -- the women served by welfare were also relying on income from jobs and from men. He elaborates, then describes the devastating consequences of the State having privatized welfare but failing to provide supervision.

Conversation 1 RealAudio9:37

Conversation 4

Wisconsin, about which Mr. DeParle writes, was the celebrated welfare system in the country, he says, and describes how 5 different agencies -- from non-profits to one trading on the New York Stock Exchange -- all failed those they were supposed to serve. The role of Wisconsin's former Governor, then U.S. Secretary of HHS Tommy Thompson is considered. Mr. DeParle gives a glimpse of the massive scandals around money and caseworkers and agencies that resulted from "privatization" with no supervision. He adds first-hand accounts of how massively opportunities were lost to actually make a huge difference in people's lives.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:15

 Conversation 5

Drawing on the experience of Angie, the central individual in his book, Mr. DeParle describes how she "endured," compared her friend Jewel who seems to have more nearly "prevailed." Mr. DeParle says the major public policy agenda reform he would champion to help women would start with a series of efforts to raise the incomes of men who have low incomes and low-skills, while reconnecting those men to their families. He factors in the destructive role of illicit drugs in poor people's lives.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:39

Conversation 6

Again reporting real stories, Mr. DeParle shows how Clinton's hope to lay a groundwork for a more progressive politics of poverty played out in real life. Mr. DeParle believes that neither liberals nor conservatives can look at how hard former welfare recipients now work and accept how bleak their lives are because they earn too little to pay for basic necessities. He outlines his two glimmers of hope.

Conversation 1 RealAudio5:12


We thank Jason DeParle for making the all-too-obvious real: Those who work should not be poor.

Let us together thank the legions of hardworking people whose names and stories we do not know -- women and men who care for our elders, our ill and those unable to care for themselves -- by uncoupling "Working" from "Poor"” in America.

Related Links:

American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare is published by Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA).

Jason DeParle's website offers more information about him and this book.

David Shipler's The Working Poor: Invisible in America explores the many challenges of poverty in America for those who often hold more than one job.

Journalist and investigative reporter Eric Schlosser has examined many instances of the exploitation of poorly paid workers.

Rev. Jim Wallis argues that the central failing of Christianity in America is our failure to adequately address poverty amidst great wealth.

Former President of the Interdenominational Theological Center Robert Franklin believes that America's 70,000 predominantly African-American Christian congregations should be doing more toward solving America's social crises, particularly the crises of poverty and alienation.

Co-editor of The American Prospect Robert Kuttner says that "economic fundamentalists" commitment to a "perfect" market blinds them to reality.

Robert Fuller exposes and explores the systemic abuses of power he calls “rankism” in his book, Somebodies and Nobodies.

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