The Taser's Edge

Tuesday Reading Roundup

1. American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare by Jason DeParle–I checked this book out from Duke in May 2008, read a third of it, and then set it out down…for a year.  As the due date for all my items approached after I graduated this year, I decided that I would skim the rest of this book before returning it.   But then it was just too good, and I read the whole thing, including a lot of the end materials.

In this highly acclaimed book, DeParle follows welfare reform from Clinton’s promise to “end welfare as we know it” in his 1992 presidential campaign (a promise which DeParle claims raised an unknown Arkansas governor to national prominence) through about 2003.  To provide both the larger picture of welfare history as well as the smallest stories of individual people being affected by the reforms, he follows three cousins, all of whom have their genealogical roots in sharecropping Mississippi (and apparently lots of welfare research draws a connection between welfare and sharecropping structures), who come to Milwaukee in the early nineties, explicitly in search of higher welfare checks.

Under Governor Tommy Thompson, Wisconsin had become the state for welfare reform in the US, and Milwaukee became the city.  What was most strange to me about the whole idea is that all kinds of highly placed government officials, supposedly experts on welfare reform, were in fact just nursing pet theories and trying them out to see what worked.  The theories always seemed to have equal statistical likelihoods for failure and for success, and what actually happened never matched their models.

You might notice that you never hear about welfare reform in politics today, and that’s because the problem is now small enough that it has been largely considered solved.  Welfare reforms actually did shrink the welfare rolls dramatically, and not just by kicking people off the rolls as they reached the new federal and state time limits.  Wisconsin, for instance, created required work modeled on the public works projects under FDR.  The state created community jobs and paid minimum wage out of welfare funds.  If people didn’t find their own jobs, they could find themselves sorting pogs for 40 hours a week, with their checks docked for every hour missed.  And an unbelievable majority of people decided they could find their own jobs for a dollar or two more than minimum.  (This was actually possible in the late 1990s.)

But the big picture problem which DeParle leaves us with is not America’s welfare problem, but its poverty problem.  Of the three women he follows, one has her life destroyed by addiction to crack cocaine, losing her home, her children, and her lifelong friendship with her two cousins.  The other two women are considered to be “successes” of the system, women who moved from the welfare rolls to the workforce.  And while they miraculously (considering all the barriers) keep their own $7-10/hr. jobs, they also have to deal with violent neighborhoods and abusive lovers, their own addictions, and children whom they have to leave unattended in order to keep food (and there is still never enough) on the table.  And so they end up not receiving cash welfare, but still needing food stamps, having health insurance provided to their children, but lacking it themselves, simply surviving.  According to DeParle’s statistics, until a family reaches double the poverty line (still calculated using long outdated and always flawed formulas), survival is what they will be doing.

Highly recommended, even though heavy on statistics.  This was published in 2004, and I don’t know if there has been a text which has yet replaced it as the definitive voice on late 20th century welfare reform.

2. Reflections on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis–I have been choosing to read this slowly thus far, just a chapter or so each day.  And it’s very good.  One lamentable thing I have noticed are some problematic conceptions of Judaism in relation to Christianity, namely the classic Christian conception of Judaism as a religion devoid of grace.  (In fact, Judaism is grace-filled, although not in every iteration, similar to how Christianity is founded on grace, but grace is lacking in some of its iterations.)

3. Watchmen, written by Alan Moore, illustrated and lettered by Dave Gibbons–After this post I wrote back in March, celebrating the opening of the Watchmen movie with a list of graphic novels which I prefer to it, both of my brothers said they couldn’t understand why I didn’t recognize the greatness of Watchmen.  They have good taste, and so, even though I rarely re-read anything (there are just too many good books out there that I’ll never get to anyway), I decided to re-read it.  And in the midst of chapter 10 of 12, I have definitely been moved a lot more.  The problem before was a lack of emotional connection, not a lack of recognizing the book’s artistic merit.  This time, I am recognizing deeper layers of the art and feeling that I connect with the characters more.  With the emotional connection, Moore and Gibbons have better earned the grislyness and horror that sometimes marks his pages.

Still, for anyone who likes Watchmen, read From Hell, too, also by Alan Moore.  Unbelievable.  And also made into (apparently, as I’ve seen neither it nor Watchmen) a critically hated movie.  I should re-read it again.  It’s like if The Da Vinci code were amazing in conception and near perfectly executed.

Slumdog Dickens

No, that’s not an amazing band name.  Or, rather, it is an amazing band name, but that’s not the point of this post.  It’s my understanding of India based on Slumdog Millionaire.  Now note the similarity between these kids:


And these kids: oliver-twist

That’s right: Fig. 1–Jamal, Latika, and Salim; Fig. 2–Oliver and Company.

Watching Slumdog made me think about the many parallels between 19th-century Britain and 21st-century India: rapid industrialization, exploding population, pollution, disease, poverty, tremendous socio-economic class divides, underdeveloped social services for its people.  Think especially of the Dickensian version of the London of that time vs. Slumdog Millionaire’s version of modern Mumbai and Bombay.  Sure the kids are orphaned, taken in by unsavory characters who exploit them for money, likely raping the girls and possibly the boys.  Charles Dickens and Danny Boyle are making very strong social statements with their works, but somehow when you finish reading those books or finishing seeing the movie, you find yourself feeling strangely uplifted and hopeful, especially with (warning: spoilers contained in the link, so click, look away quickly, and then grab a loved one and do your own dance scene until you can see this particular dance scene at the end of the film; use plenty of arms in the air for maximum effect and accuracy) the amazing final dance scene.

To be clear, I’m conflicted.  I love Dickens (not that I’ve actually read him widely or recently) and I adored Slumdog (and am still feasting upon its glorious soundtrack).  I love the energy that Danny Boyle creates and the optimism that you leave the theater feeling.  What I don’t so much like is that nagging feeling inside me that I don’t want to let myself think about the reality of India’s (or the world’s or the US’) hungering, suffering, and impoverished human beings, particularly the children.  It’s not ruining the movie to mention an opening scene in which one of the children grins as he seeks out a celebrity’s autograph while covered from head-to-toe in human waste.  My whole theater, at least, laughed.  My stomach turned.  What was intended by the scene?  I don’t know, and maybe I’m one of those people who is taking it too seriously when I should have just taken as a sight gag.

What was intended by the movie?  I’m sure that there is money involved in the minds of its creators.  But I think Boyle wanted to pack out theaters and get people to see something that we hate knowing about, just as Dickens wanted to sell a whole bunch of books while making people read about human lives that they didn’t want to know about.  Is it possible that there’s a choice to be made between (1) providing me with an immaculately accurate depiction which crushes all my hopes that there can be hope and (2) glossing over some of life’s messiness for the greater good that my optimism might encourage me to do something?

I just tabbed over to the official movie website in hopes that there would be at least some link to a charity or something…and there isn’t.  Even now my cynicism is telling me that no one walks out of Slumdog and starts planning how to help the children of India’s slums.  I neither want to end this post on a complete downer or to insist cheesily on hoping, so I’ll go for the middle road approach.  It’s a big deal if a ton of Americans, a particular set of Americans who use their disposable income to see a movie about India, start thinking about India more.  Because I think those are some of the same Americans who might be able to use some of their other resources to help somebody.

Oh yeah…see Slumdog as soon as possible.