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DeParle Gets Half the Story

The NYT doesn't tell us what we need to know about Milwaukee's poor.


Posted Friday, December 31, 1999

        Jason DeParle's New York Times reports on Wisconsin's radical welfare reform are typically gripping and fair. Thursday's Page One summing-up is no exception. But it also makes one of the basic errors of welfare coverage, an error that might be called the Leavers Fallacy.

        Specifically, DeParle tends to judge the success of welfare reform by what happened to families that were on welfare before the Wisconsin reform took effect, but who then left. As Christopher Jencks and Joseph Swingle point out in the current American Prospect, "[t]hese families are only half the story." The other half includes those families who would have gone on welfare under the old system, but who now "no longer even apply for welfare." These latter families, you'd think, would tend to be more successful in the marketplace than people who now spend some time on the rolls. To really judge welfare reform, then, you have to look at what happens to all families who would have been on welfare under the old system, those who leave and those who never go on. Actually, you can't even stop there. You have to look at what is happening to the overall society in which those families live--at what's happening in the schools and on the streets, to poor single mothers who might get welfare, but also to single men and non-poor families who live in the same neighborhoods.

        DeParle's piece has good anecdotal reportage about specific women who left welfare for work and who still have big problems. From this he concludes that welfare reform "may end up making less of a difference in the lives of the poor, socially or economically, than much of the public imagined." But his piece has very little evidence, and almost no statistical evidence, about what has happened overall to Wisconsin's poor, including those who "no longer even apply for welfare"--the other half of the story.

        Thus, DeParle points out that "a long list of things" remains present in the lives of the poor, including "violent neighborhoods, absent fathers, bare cupboards, epidemics of depression, the temptations of drugs." That's very true. But are they getting better or worse? That is the issue, isn't it? DeParle doesn't tell us. Are the neighborhoods more violent? Are fathers taking more of an interest in their children? Are there fewer kids born without fathers present in the household? Are more mothers being beaten up by their boyfriends? Are kids doing better in school? Is the culture of drug-taking and drug-dealing becoming more or less entrenched? Are more people depressed? Hungry? Overall, how has the texture of ghetto life changed? Welfare reformers said it would be change for the better. Were they right?

        Some of these things would not be difficult to report on; some would be very difficult. That's why we give Pulitzer Prizes. DeParle doesn't really seem to try to come up with much. We learn a lot about the problems in the lives of the handful of women he has chosen as his case studies--but not only are they all individual anecdotes, they are all "leavers," people who were on welfare before. The broader surveys DeParle offers are also all surveys of leavers. He offers no economic surveys of the whole population--much less social surveys of crime, marriage, and the like.

        The Jencks and Swingle article provides some of that necessary missing information for the nation as a whole--as much as the existing statistics can provide. Although American Prospect gives the piece a sleazily slanted cover line ("Welfare Reform's Victims") the article contains more positive news than negative. "Employment among single mothers has increased more than almost anyone expected." Most single mothers are a little better off economically, but a small minority at the bottom "seem to be a little worse off." The "rise of the single-parent family may finally have been arrested," although this began in 1994, so it's not clear that welfare reform can take the credit. The most troubling statistic for reformers: In Wisconsin, the proportion of children born out of wedlock doesn't seem to have improved lately.

        DeParle's one stab at a general assessment of the social health of Milwaukee's ghetto is rhetorically brilliant but ultimately unconvincing. He tracks down William Love, a bus driver who in 1998, along with two other drivers, gave the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel an upbeat assessment of the impact of reform on his clientele. The Journal Sentinel clip got passed around in pro-reform circles and wound up in a Clinton radio address. DeParle says Love is now "having doubts." Love is also a landlord, and some of his tenants, who no longer receive guaranteeed monthly welfare checks, are offering "excuses" for missing the rent. "So far, haven't seen a big difference, one way or another," he tells DeParle. It's a good shot at welfare reform cheerleaders, but ultimately my suspicion is that Mr. Love may be one of those kind interviewees who winds up telling reporters what they want to hear. (And aren't there other bus drivers to talk to, like the two drivers whose pro-reform observations in the original Journal Sentinel piece were actually stronger than Love's? What about local church leaders? Social workers? Cops?)

        Some other beefs with Thursday's piece:

        --Discussing one "leaver" survey, DeParle declares that "for most families the work has failed to translate into economic progress." These families, he says, earn "$400 less than they would have received by staying on welfare." But he later admits this figure ignores "earned-income tax credits, which at these levels typically total about $3,000 a year." Doesn't that mean families are actually $2,600 ahead? Isn't that the story?

        --DeParle refers to "Milwaukee's growing homeless shelter population," but doesn't give any figures on how much it's growing. When I checked a couple of years ago, the shelter population had indeed increased, but only by a handful of families. Is the problem now more severe? Are we talking about dozens of people or thousands?

        --DeParle's big concluding anecdote is the story of Michelle Crawford, "a 39-year-old Milwaukee woman who went to work last year at a plastics plant, after two decades of desperation and chronic dependence on welfare." She's still working, but DeParle notes that even though "she earned nearly $16,000 this year" she "struggles to simply keep food on the table" to feed her family. But wait a minute. DeParle also notes that her husband, Donald, recently "found a job, as a hotel maintenance man." Presumably he gets paid. How much? And doesn't that money get added to the $16,000 to help "feed her three children"? Maybe it's not enough to make a big difference, but DeParle doesn't even bother to tell us.

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Copyright 1999 Mickey Kaus.

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