The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

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Welfare Warrior


New York Times senior reporter Jason DeParle visited St. John’s Tuesday to speak about poverty and welfare in America.

The event, sponsored by the Division of Student Affairs, drew over 100 students and faculty to a luncheon in the University Center during common hour.

DeParle, a graduate of Duke University who won a George Polk award for his reporting in 1999 and was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, spent most of the time discussing his 2004 book, American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare. The book, a memoir of several years that DeParle spent in Milwaukee, living with a group of impoverished single-parent families, focused on the effects of the Clinton welfare reforms of the mid-1990’s.

The book centers around Angie Jobe, a single black mother of four who moved to Milwaukee in the early 90’s “to survive,” according to DeParle. Jobe had never graduated high school, and had relied on welfare to support her family for 12 years before Clinton’s reforms forced her, as well as her friends Jewell and Opal, out of the Welfare program.

“She was exactly the kind of person that so many people, including me, worried would be harmed by this law,” DeParle said.

DeParle follows Angie through her struggle to earn a living for her family by working as a Nurse’s aid and earning only $7.50 per hour, and he used her as an example in his speech of how writing about poverty can be a deeply humbling and enlightening experience.

When he spoke with The Torch, DeParle noted that he had not always wanted to be a writer. “I got interested in journalism late in my college career,” he said. “The summer before my senior year I went to India and did a service project. I worked in a clinic there, and I kept a journal.”

DeParle brought his notes back to Duke and eventually turned them into a piece that was published by a campus newspaper.

“I got a nice reaction to it from people on campus,” he said. “That’s how I started thinking about writing.”

After his graduation, DeParle thought briefly about attending graduate school, but instead decided to delay it and spend some time working as a journalist. He took jobs in New Orleans and Washington before finally being hired by the New York Times.

DeParle used his job at the Times to pursue his earlier aspiration to do something involving poverty.

“I got interested in poverty before I got interested in journalism,” he said. “I wanted to think about some way to be involved in alleviating poverty- I decided to try to fashion a career in journalism writing about poverty.

At the Times, DeParle started a new poverty policy beat, and covered it daily up until 1996. Then, when President Clinton’s welfare bill passed, he decided to go on assignment and see how it would affect Americans living in poverty.

“For a five-year span, I was really deeply immersed in the welfare debate,” he said. “And yet all of that was really just a prelude.

“Sometimes I think journalists, particularly Washington journalists, are guilty of covering the story right up to the beginning”

DeParle took a book-leave from his job at the Times and traveled to Milwaukee to write the book. “I didn’t want to just drop this issue of what would happen to the 15 million women and children on welfare,” he said.

When asked about being “objective” as a journalist in covering Angie’s story, DeParle commented that the word that is often used to describe the ethics of journalism.

“Journalists, I would say, just need to acknowledge that the way we see the world is a product of a lot of angles and our background and we should be conscious of those and work doubly hard to be fair toward other competing explanations of what we’re seeing.”

When asked why the issue of welfare is so divisive on an ideological level, DeParle responded that it is because it involves the issues of race, class, and sexuality, in that unwed parents are often in the middle of the controversy.

“It was a great privilege to be a part of Angie, Opal and Jewell’s lives, but it was also a lot of fun,” he said. “I had a blast hanging out with them, I learned a lot, and we had fun together.”

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