In this definitive work, two-time Pulitzer finalist Jason DeParle cuts between the mean streets of Milwaukee and the corridors of Washington to produce a masterpiece of literary journalism. At the heart of the story are three cousins whose different lives follow similar trajectories. Leaving welfare, Angie puts her heart in her work. Jewell bets on an imprisoned man. Opal guards a tragic secret that threatens her kids and her life. DeParle traces their family history back six generations to slavery and weaves poor people, politicians, reformers, and rogues into a spellbinding epic.
With a vivid sense of humanity, DeParle demonstrates that although we live in a country where anyone can make it, generation after generation some families don't. To read American Dream is to understand why.
In the years after 1996, when President Clinton signed welfare-reform legislation, nine million women and children left the country’s welfare rolls. Though the exodus was applauded in Washington, the story of exactly how these families were faring remained, in DeParle’s words, a “national mystery.” DeParle spent these years in Milwaukee, welfare reform’s unofficial capital, studying the lives of three former welfare mothers: Jewell, Opal, and Angie. The narrative pans across generations of poverty—the women’s grandparents sharecropped cotton—while, in the present, results vary. Opal tumbles into crack addiction, but the others struggle ahead, ultimately earning nine and ten dollars an hour as nursing assistants; Angie even joins a 401(k) plan. They are welfare-reform “successes,” but their lives remain precarious. When there isn’t enough money, lights are turned off and children go hungry. “Just treading water,” Angie says, surveying her progress. “Just making it, that’s all.”