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Nothing marked Bill Clinton as a new kind of Democrat more than his campaign pledge to "end welfare as we know it." Both blunt and vague, the promise resonated with a view that the social safety net had become a web that ensnared the underclass, particularly African Americans, in a gloomy pathology of dependency. Too many of the poor, Clinton said, couldn't even dream the American Dream.
American Dream is the melancholy title Jason DeParle of the New York Times chose for his richly researched, beautifully written chronicle of the era that fulfilled Clinton's pledge. Political abstractions are juxtaposed against the personal dramas of three emblematic unwed mothers. By the book's end, the women have 10 children between them, and one, at age 35, is already a grandmother. At first glance, Angie, Jewell, and Opal seem to justify all the criticisms of the welfare system: Each new birth ensures a larger welfare check; they move from Chicago to Milwaukee for higher benefits and cheaper rent; they take jobs without telling the welfare office. Fathers tend to be out of the picturetwo are in prison for murder.