Boo's Clues

Boo's Clues

Boo's Clues

Political commentary and more.
May 18 2001 3:50 AM

Boo's Clues

Katherine Boo's recent, long New Yorker piece, "After Welfare," isn't a series, and shouldn't be skipped. But it's been taken by many people--including Mary McGrory, Charles Peters, and I suspect Boo's editors at The New Yorker--as an indictment of welfare reform, which it isn't. In case you've gotten that impression, but don't have time to read this well-told story, here's an opinionated summary:


Story: "After Welfare," Katherine Boo, The New Yorker, April 9, 2001.

Cover teaser: "Does work make you a better mother? ... [T]he price one family pays for being a welfare reform success story."

Thesis sentence: "[T]he exodus of mothers into the workplace [prompted by welfare reform] has created something new and not wholly positive in the Shrimp Boat [a poor D.C. neighborhood]: a world of free-range children at the mercy of unreformed institutions that, in the absence of parents, are all they have."

Heroine: Elizabeth "Cookie" Jones, 31-year-old single mother of three children "by three hit-and-run men." A welfare recipient for nine years, Jones is now a D.C. cop earning "about" $39,000 a year by working a second job as a security guard.


Is Jones a representative ex-welfare recipient? No. In one sense, she should have it much easier than most recipients--as Boo notes, most women leaving welfare don't make anywhere near $39,000 a year. On the other hand, Jones has gotten into an unusually deep hole because she must care for three children, one of whom is learning-disabled. The vast majority--three quarters--of welfare households have only one or two children.

Obligatory sneering reference to the motives of welfare reformers: "At the end of the century, the supposed indolence of communities like the Shrimp Boat helped inspire ... the most celebrated social-policy initiative in a generation," Boo writes. [Emphasis added.] In fact, very few supporters of the 1996 welfare reform (not Gingrich, and certainly not Clinton) talked of "indolence," at least not of lazy mothers on the dole. They talked of people "trapped" in a system that encouraged dependence and out-of-wedlock births. Maybe the reformers were too upbeat, an issue we'll get to later. But in the main they were concerned with the same issue that concerns Boo (and Jones)--namely whether "a cycle of opportunity" could replace "the cycle of pathology." Anyway, in her earlier Washington Post articles, Boo herself described Jones' East Capitol neighborhood as a place where "Just 15 percent of the household heads reported an earned income," where "[w]aiting for checks and caseworkers, you got into the habit of waiting for life to happen too." She also said, "Jones doesn't know a single other East Capper holding down a full-time job." So why the snide "supposed?"

Non-obligatory, but equally annoying, journalistic pose: "Welfare reform has been chronicled by journalists, academics, and policymakers who are thriving in America's culture of opportunity ..." These social engineers have their theories, in this set-up, but Boo knows the reality because she hangs in the 'hood with "three children whose elevation I particularly root for." When the journalists, academics, and policymakers turn out to be right, though, Boo can't quite admit it. For example, Boo reports that "the women of the Shrimp Boat--part of a group described not long ago as a permanent underclass--are steadily becoming more like the American middle class." Note how this sentence brilliantly uses the very triumph of welfare reform (changing a neighborhood where 15 percent of households had earned income into one that's becoming middle class!) to sneer at the rhetoric ("permanent underclass") of the policymakers, etc., who led the successful reform.

Horrors: Jones' grueling work schedule (all-night shift, two hours of sleep, then off to second job until 5 p.m.) leaves her children home alone. Her 11-year-old daughter, Drenika, cooks for her two brothers, Dernard and Wayne. They are forbidden to go outside when their mother isn't there. Outside, kids play aimlessly, desperate for adult attention as "evidence they exist." Elizabeth "sees her own pretty daughter in a throng of boys and feels sick," worried that Drenika, who is restive "covering for her mother at home," will get pregnant. Jones scrambles to find decent schools. At her daughter's junior high, two of six classes in one day are cancelled for lack of teachers. In geography, the teacher gives a make-work writing assignment and puts jazz on a boombox. Students aren't allowed to take books home. At the "charter" school her younger son attends, students sit "quietly at empty desks. ... They stared into space as the teacher sat at his desk doing the same." One of the local day care providers is "the operator of a neighborhood crack house, whose own five children were removed by child-protection services." Several young men are murdered. Jones breaks up with her "on and off boyfriend and all-time hope for marriage" after he resumes his crack habit.


Initial, obvious flaw in the thesis: The very real problems Jones faces are basically not problems with welfare reform, which has successfully turned her from a recipient into a worker. Jones is now a struggling, lower-middle class, professional black single mother--a description that covers a good chunk of D.C.'s work force--with the problems faced by other middle-class working single mothers. She "sometimes thinks about what her life would be like" if she didn't work and spent more time with her kids. Well, what working mother doesn't sometimes think about that?

In particular, Jones seems to have four major difficulties: 1) She's single and has no male partner to help her earn money or to father her children; 2) The schools in the District are awful; 3) The social services in the District are awful; 4) Her neighborhood is awful, populated by drug dealers and murderous thugs. None of these problems was caused by welfare reform. But problems 1 and 4 (and maybe 2) were arguably caused by the old welfare system, which sustained a culture of single mothers, non-marriage, and male irresponsibility in neighborhoods with few legitimate jobs.

Boo's piece should be read as an attack on welfare, not reform? Yes! In large part, anyway. Boo sometimes seems to insinuate that the social chaos she documents is the product of "free-range children" running around in the "absence of parents." But she doesn't even try to make this case, because it couldn't really be made. Welfare was reformed four or five years ago. Is Boo saying ghettos weren't chaotic and filled with gunshots and gangbangers before then? No. The neighborhood's problems were lamented and documented for decades before welfare reform--and were amply present in earlier pieces Boo herself wrote about Elizabeth Jones for the Washington Post in 1996, before the new reform law took effect, and 1997. It's far more plausible to say that Jones' problems come mostly because she's trying to raise her kids as middle-class kids in the middle of the old ghetto-poor culture that the welfare system enabled.

Legitimate questions Boo raises:a) In the long run, will the positive social effect, on that ghetto-poor culture, of getting mothers like Jones into the workforce be outweighed by the negative effect of taking them away from their children for large parts of the day? b) Even if the answer to a) is "no" and the "underclass" eventually gets absorbed into the middle class, will the children of individual mothers like Jones be transitional victims--exposed to the ghetto culture without parental protection before the culture gets transformed? Put more simply, whatever happens to anyone else, are Jones and her kids better off because of welfare reform or worse off?


Note that you could still support welfare reform for its long term benefits even if the answer to b) is "worse off." The transition from communism to capitalism in Eastern Europe is making many people worse off too, but it's still worth undertaking. The goal of reform, in this sense, is not so much to make sure this generation of single ex-welfare mothers succeeds. It is to make sure future generations of women don't become single mothers. You could even argue cold-bloodedly--OK, I've argued cold-bloodedly--that it helps, in achieving this long-term goal, if the lives of people like Jones are harder than the lives of others. Jones had three out-of-wedlock children with three different irresponsible men; if you want to discourage others from making those socially disastrous decisions, then Jones has to be seen by others to be paying at least some of the price for her actions. True, this nasty-but-realistic long-term "deterrence" rationale for welfare reform clashes with the optimistic you-can-make-it "empowerment" rhetoric that accompanied reform's passage. For the deterrence to work, potential welfare recipients need to know, "It's really tough being a single working mom!"--not "You can do it!" But maybe, despite the rhetoric, Jones' evident struggles will still act as a warning to those who come after her.

Yet Boo is hardly crazy to suggest (in an online New Yorker interview accompanying publication of the piece) that the long-term argument is "problematic" if it requires sacrificing Jones' children. Does it?

Screaming question Boo doesn't answer: Why doesn't Jones move out of her horrible neighborhood? It's the most obvious thing she could do to help her kids. Many of her former neighbors have done just that--in recent decades there has been a large exodus of middle- and working-class blacks from the District to the suburbs, especially to Maryland's Prince George's County. "[W]hen Dernard hears gunshots outside the house at midnight and shakes with terror, he can't cry out for his mother," Boo tells us. Why not at least try to go to a neighborhood where you don't hear gunshots outside at midnight?

In her New Yorker piece, Boo doesn't even ask this question, let alone answer it. In the Web-only Q & A, she says "one reason Cookie stays in the Shrimp Boat is that it's cheap," noting that "Elizabeth's house, where her kids each have a tiny basement bedroom" costs "$200 less than what I pay for a one-bedroom apartment in a safer neighborhood a few miles away." But it's clearly worth the $200. Cost doesn't seem like a sufficient answer, given the cheaper P.G. suburbs, and the successful exodus of poor Shrimp Boat residents (which Boo acknowledges). If you make $39,000 a year you don't have to live where Elizabeth Jones lives. Boo then refers to "idiosyncratic reasons why a particular family might choose to stay in a neighborhood like the Shrimp Boat: familiarity, the presence of long-time friends to help them out in a pinch. ... " Yet Boo reported in 1997 that Jones' best friend moved away and Jones knew "no one else" around whom "she would trust to watch her kids." There's no evidence she's since found anyone trustworthy. So we're left with the question--and the mild, but pervasive, sense that there's a piece of the story Boo hasn't told us.


Potential fallacy about parenting: Boo adopts Jones' analytic framework. If she'd stayed on welfare she "wouldn't have had the clarity and confidence she has now about what she wants for her children ... but she might have had more time to help them reach those goals. She would have been a better day-to-day mom but a lousier role model ..." But how much can a stay-at-home mom really accomplish?

Example: One major plotline in the piece concerns Jones efforts to prevent Drenika from having sex. "[T]his girl is on fire," says Andre Ford, the local postal worker/football coach and the piece's male hero. "Here's a child ... who needs her mother to be there. And here's a mother who needs to work." Boo's (and Jones') assumption seems to be that if only Jones could be around full-time, she could stop Drenika from going astray. But is this accurate, or does it overestimate the power of parents to supervise adolescents?

One way to think about this is to ask what Jones would choose if she could either a) be a full-time mom, or b) magically change Drenika's peer group into that of an average middle-class suburban high school. Is there any doubt that the character of Drenika's peers will have more influence on her fate than the number of hours her mom spends at home worrying about where her daughter is and confronting those potential boyfriends she knows about? How much control can moms exercise over teen-agers--even if they are conscientious "tiger" mothers like Jones?

Boo's earlier Post stories were set up to contrast Jones with her best friend, LaVerne Peeler, a welfare mother who opted against work in order to stay at home "putting her body between her children and the dangers and temptations that lurk, literally, outside her door." That proved impossible. Peeler's story isn't told in Boo's New Yorker piece, but it is Peeler's 17-year-old son whose killing is described on the piece's seventh page. Despite Peeler's 24-hour mothering, her son had "stolen fifty dollars from a female crackhead whose male friend had a street-sweeping Mac 12." In Boo's own small-scale experiment, the stay-on-welfare option doesn't fare well.

Just as Boo seems to overstate what a round-the-clock watchperson can accomplish, she may understate the "role model" effect. Even if Drenika does have sex, after all, it's a lot less likely that she'll get pregnant if she has a mother who knows how hard it is to raise a child alone and who clearly wants her to "finish high school without having children and to go to college." (In fact, birth control use has been increasing among black teens.)

Two other pro-reform factors The New Yorker leaves out: 1) Boo's earlier Post pieces emphasize that Jones has been physically abused by men, but is now unlikely to let that happen. "There was a time when she took men's punches and then repaired to her bathroom mirror, seeking the fault in her own face," Boo wrote. But now she has "the confidence she has gotten from her job." 2) It's pretty clear Jones now has much more knowledge of the outside world and its resources than she did when she was on welfare, both because she's richer and because she's out there working in the mainstream world. We learn in the online Q & A, but not the piece, that Jones' learning-disabled son now sends e-mails on the computer Jones can now afford. Online, Boo also notes that "work has helped Cookie know from a computer; it's broadened her horizons and given her a much better idea of what her kids need to know to better their futures."

Do right-wingers hate Boo's piece? No! By pointing to the role of the missing men in Jones' life, it dovetails perfectly with the new conservative agenda of marriage promotion, the "next phase of welfare reform" according to Wade F. Horn, President Bush's nominee to a key welfare post. It's pretty clear, for example, that Andre Ford's football team gives local boys some specifically masculine attention they desperately crave. More significantly, the need extends to Jones' daughter, Drenika. In the passage I quoted earlier, Ford doesn't really argue that Drenika requires tighter supervision from a stay-at-home mom. He argues she needs attention from a father: "When you grow up in a house where your dad is buying you stuff and telling you he loves you, you don't fall for the okeydoke that comes from other guys. But when you don't get attention from males at home, some guy'll say, 'Damn, you got a nice one,' and that'll sound so good. ..."

What Boo knows that the policymakers don't: Is it possible to discern some long-term, ecological process in which, as the moms of teen-agers like Drenika become more like middle-class moms, the peers of teen-agers like Drenika eventually become more like middle-class teen-agers? That will involve changing the perceptions of often predatory local men--a big task. The pool of marriageable men seems to be so small that Jones herself goes out for five years with a guy--her "all-time hope for marriage"--who never gives her his home phone number!

But there are signs of progress. "The idea of marriage is relatively new in the Shrimp Boat, where for decades even love was something a woman lied about to caseworkers," says Boo. Though Boo also says "there is little evidence thus far that [welfare reform] has had an effect," the very fact that marriage is now an "idea" is an effect. Meanwhile, men are bristling at all the "newly-self-sufficient women"--the sort who disdain "scrubs" (men without jobs or money). Boo points to a record lyric, "Give me a project chick./Give me a hoodrat bitch,/One that don't give a fuck." And when there are fewer and fewer hoodrat bitches? Signs of progress, as I said.

Here, I think, Boo really does get close to the heart of the issue in a way many Washington welfare experts, especially those on the left, don't. Want to study the effect of welfare reform? Pay attention to the song lyrics, not the income tables! When the equivalent of Jay-Z starts boasting about all the women he's scoring with because he has a full-time job, we'll know welfare reform is working.