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:

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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?

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