For class a while back, I read a part of Jason DeParle’s American Dream. In the past two years of grad school, I’ve read a lot, but I remembered the chapters from American Dream, and wrestling with them. The specific part that comes up in my mind every now and then is the complicated story of Angie and Jewell and the realities of their transitions off the welfare rolls and into jobs and independence.
DeParle is an author, so he is using their story to make a point. He starts out by carefully breaking down, almost like a page pulled from someone’s homemade budget spreadsheet, the apparent financial improvement of life after welfare. Once someone no longer needs unemployment assistance because they’ve gotten a job, things should be much easier: more money, more independence, more control, more freedom. But DeParle wants to show us just how much harder it gets after welfare.
Angie’s story is one that I believe I’ve heard many times, both before and after the election, but I don’t like to listen to it anymore. Angie’s is the frustrating narrative that those of us who support the federal welfare programs tell ourselves, tell our friends and family, and tell the world when we get the chance. While Fox News goes looking for welfare queens and entitled young Californian men, those of us on the other side go looking for the hardworking poor to hold up as examples of how the system is failing those who need it most. And when telling a story like Angie’s, we’ll highlight, as I did while reading, the point where DeParle explains that her “child-care costs were minimal, since the kids mostly minded themselves,” and we’ll ask ourselves, our friends and families, the world Is this safe for those children? Is it healthy? Is it what we, as a society, want for our future citizens and leaders? We look at stories like Angie’s and see that her poverty is not her fault, she’s doing everything she can, and yet her children are still suffering.
Because DeParle is an author, and he’s using a story. But Angie is (or was… the book was only written thireen years ago, but I confess I don’t know what happened to the important players after it was published) a real person, and she is more than a progressive’s posterchild for welfare reform.
I read that chapter about Angie before I had ever met anyone like her. I’ll admit that, after reading DeParle’s version of her story, I can’t say whether I would have liked Angie if I had met her back then. I probably wouldn’t have approved of her choices if I had heard about them on the news. I probably wouldn’t have valued her opinion much if we had had a conversation. At the time, I knew I had these biases, and I knew I didn’t want them, and I was sure that it mattered. DeParle convinced me that it mattered. He’s an author; convincing his reader was sort of the point.
I still don’t think it’s fair for me to see Angie that way. Just reading someone else’s account of her life isn’t the same as understanding what it’s like to live it. I’ve also come to hate my implicit and biased decision that, based on Angie’s struggles with her transition from reliance on public welfare to her reliance on herself, her children should have to suffer too simply because they had the bad luck to be born to a mother on the welfare rolls.
But I’ve met more people like Angie now, instead of just reading books about them. I haven’t just studied them. I’ve sat in their living rooms and talked them through their child’s temper tantrums. I’ve sat with their children at court, trying to distract them while a lawyer reads an excessively graphic police report about a violent weekend of gang rape. I’ve strategized with them about how to get to doctor’s appointments without a car, or how to get to the bank before it closes, or how to prove to the daycare that they meet the income requirements for a scholarship.
It’s frustrating sometimes. Some Angies I’ve met have been kind, patient people who appreciate that I’m trying to help them. And some Angies are frustrated with me too, since I’m an agent of a system that tells them regularly that they’re not good enough. And some Angies are actually kind of scary, because they’re taller than me, bigger than me, and they don’t like talking to me and it’s obvious. Sometimes I don’t like Angie. Sometimes I don’t think they’re making the right choices. Sometimes I think they say things that don’t make sense, and I don’t really think their opinions are valid. If that was supposed to go away before I got my MSW, I think I failed. Pitt, if you’re reading this, you can come take my diploma back, I guess.
But I don’t think it matters how I feel about Angie. DeParle tried to get me to like Angie, or to feel like I understood her, to try to imagine what it would be like to have to live her life. But not every Angie has a DeParle, and I don’t need to try to understand everyone or try to imagine their lives. I have been in the courtroom while a person’s deepest, most painful secrets are shared unceremoniously with a whole room full of strangers who are there specifically to pass judgement, and there is no way I could ever “understand” that. Trying to imagine how that feels is an effort in futility, because I am nowhere near that creative.
And I guess that’s why I’ve stopped reading the feature stories in the news. I’ve stopped wondering about the people in episodes of This American Life. I’ve stopped trying to figure out what DeParle, or God, might be trying to get me to learn from the other people he put in this world. God, unlike DeParle, doesn’t have to use people to make a point. I still believe there is power in narrative, but I believe God is telling me more about myself than anyone else whenever I see his authorial intent in my day.
Sometimes I don’t like Angie, and sometimes it’s because I’m ignorant: it could be that I’m misogynistic, racist, or just stubbornly uninformed and rude. I still believe that I should work to not be ignorant, but I also believe that when God calls my faults and weaknesses to my attention, he’s not just trying to use a teachable moment. He’s saying, “You’re wrong sometimes. You’re a lot wrong sometimes. You’re pretty awful sometimes. But I love you; I chose you. I won’t love you less if you get more wrong, and I won’t love you more if you get less wrong. I just wanted you to know that I love you, even when you can’t love you.”