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Debate about welfare reform usually proceeds high up the ladder of abstraction. Suite-level pundits hurl theoretical thunderbolts and wave statistics. One talented journalist, Katherine Boo, took a different approach when welfare reform became a national reality in 1996. That year in The Washington Post she profiled Elizabeth “Cookie” Jones, a longtime welfare recipient. Boo reported on her again in 1997, profiled her once more in 2001, and mentioned her in a 2006 NPR interview.

Boo met Jones in a D.C. public-housing project because a friend of Jones also on welfare suggested that Jones, 27 and the mother of three elementary-school children by three different men, was making a mistake by going to work. The reason: “Her kids are raising themselves”–and that would ruin them in the long run. Jones agreed to spend time with Boo so that legislators would come to understand “the stomach-turning choices implicit in that bumper sticker of a phrase “welfare-to-work.”

Boo in 1996 and 1997 documented how Jones found a job but then “faced a choice: Ice the job, reclaim the welfare check, walk the kids home from school. Or keep the job and risk the kids.” Boo wrote that Jones’ mother “had her first child at 17 and went on welfare. Jones had her first at 17 and went on welfare”–but Jones vowed to break that pattern, “or I’ll die trying.”
Jones, in short, was a purpose-driven heroine facing huge obstacles, including the bad public schools in her poor part of the district. Boo’s implied question: Would Jones’ children die as their mom tried to break that generational pattern? Boo described the children muttering, “scary,” as they walked past old vodka bottles, up a stinkweed path, past one long block “where a man will days later be found murdered in his car.” Jones believed the risk was worthwhile because her children would learn that work, not welfare, is natural.
My favorite short story, “What Men Live By,” came from the mind and hand of Leo Tolstoy. In it God sends a compassionate angel plummeting to earth because the angel refuses to take the life of a woman with two little babies: The angel asks how they will live without their mother. Boo, a compassionate writer, was asking that same question when she wrote a new profile of Elizabeth Jones for The New Yorker in 2001.
By then Jones had become a police officer, even though her children didn’t like it: “They think she’ll get hurt. She fears they’ll get hurt if she gives it up.” By then Boo, in the words of an interviewer, was “close to suggesting that Elizabeth Jones would have been better off had she stayed on welfare.” Boo responded, “In the long run, I think the struggle may be worth it,” but Jones’ “lack of time is going to have consequences.” Five years later, on NPR, Boo said “the positive benefits that a mother is going to get from work–self-esteem and exposures to mainstream culture, the benefits of higher education–those are real benefits. But family life in the short-term, I think, isn’t very pretty.”
Jones’ attempt to escape welfare clearly was stressful, as all transitions to upward mobility, whether individual or national, are stressful. Immigrants to America had it tough. British workers going through industrialization had it tough. Now, workers in China and India suffer. But Jones, like many others throughout the world, refused to give up. She also disappeared from the press for the next few years, as pundits abstractly discussed the long-term effects of welfare without drilling down into the effect on individual lives.
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