Hands to Work: The Stories of Three Families Racing the Welfare Clock By LynNell Hancock. William Morrow. 320 pages. $25.95.
In one memorable passage in Hands to Work, a 38-year-old welfare mother named Brenda Fields is studying the written “integrity test” that comes with her application for a cashier job at a Madison Avenue clothing store. This particular store carries dress shirts that cost 20 times the weekly fee that, until recently, Fields was shelling out for child care for her four-year-old son; but those are not the numbers most on her mind, especially since she can no longer afford that daycare center because the city keeps cutting her benefits.
“What was the value of the last thing you stole?” That is one of the questions Fields is supposed to answer for her integrity test. “$1 to $10, $10 to $50, etc.,” the test continues. No option is offered for zero dollars, so she leaves the question blank. We watch Fields smolder through the subsequent interview, in which she acknowledges having once tried pot and sees her interviewer write “marijuana” in large letters on his form; we watch her collect her son from the acquaintance who agreed to baby-sit him but seems to have left him alone in a Bronx apartment-building hallway; we watch her open her refrigerator for a caseworker so he can see that she’s stretching her food stamps enough to keep Children’s Services from taking her son away. “She had a little more than three years left on her welfare clock,” author LynNell Hancock writes. “With each [job] rejection, the ticking had grown louder.”
The mission of Hands to Work is an admirable one. Five years ago, in what would surely have been the most controversial act of his presidency if he had just kept his pants on more of the time, Bill Clinton signed into law the resolutely named Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, more popularly known as welfare reform. Reform is a loaded word, of course; Hancock, a journalist who now teaches at Columbia University, set out to examine the extent to which the vocabulary fit the grand experiment. She chose the venerable reporter’s vehicle, the closely observed personal story, and worked hard to find characters whose experiences, in the face of new work-for-your-welfare requirements and five-year lifetime cutoffs on federal benefits, might transcend political cliché. The three women Hancock followed, over years of interviewing and fly-on-the-wall reporting, all emerged from what she describes as the “entrenched welfare population” of the South Bronx: Fields, the African American eager to heed the new exhortations about the restorative power of a paying job; Alina Zukina, the Moldovan Jewish immigrant set on entering medical school; and Christine Rivera, the Puerto Rican with four children and a corrosive heroin habit.
Trying to weave these multi-year dramas into the back story of the national debate over welfare reform is a tough proposition, and at times Hands to Work is not quite up to the task. The chronology is confusing in places, and the writing clunks a little too often. Some readers may complain that in her closing chapters Hancock ducks the central question: With the Personal Responsibility Act due up for congressional reauthorization this year, has reform left these women better or worse off than they were before?
That Hancock resists sound-bite answers, while hooking readers into the calamitous suspense of her central characters’ fates, is one of the great strengths of her book. She has given voice and nuance to the kinds of stories normally reduced to aphoristic pro or con arguments: What happens to Hancock’s women is by turns infuriating, gratifying, startling, and sad, but none of it is simple. Included here are statistics to buoy both defenders and critics of welfare reform: Yes, welfare caseloads have plummeted since 1996; yes, poverty and unemployment rates both dropped for five years straight. And yes, those were boom-time numbers, tied to an extraordinary run in the American economy. By last summer, even the loudest cheerleaders for benefits cutoffs were showing some apprehension about what might happen as the recession killed off low-end jobs that were supposed to be changing welfare recipients’ lives– and that was before the repercussions from September 11. Copies of Hancock’s book ought to be shoved, before that reauthorization vote, into the hands of every member of Congress, especially the ones who have never been instructed to stash their children someplace while they look for a $7-an-hour job.
Yellow. By Frank H. Wu. Basic Books. $26.
Frank Wu, a “yellow” law professor at traditionally black Howard University, has a difficult task. Asian Americans are invariably cast as the Other in debates about race in AmericaÑa conundrum neatly captured by Gary Okihiro’s quip: “Is yellow black or white?” They are celebrated as a “model minority” at the same time they are treated as perpetual outsiders and essentially erased by the mainstream media (When was the last time you saw an Asian American sitcom?). With Yellow, Wu sets out to form a broad, popular argument about the place of Asians in America, and in large part he succeeds. Wu is at his best when analyzing recent history. He recounts the hypocrisy of the Asian campaign finance scandal, with its demonization of Asian Americans as slant-eyed foreign agents. He also blasts the government’s destructive and deceitful case against Wen Ho Lee, who, Wu notes, because of his race, “was a natural suspect.” Here, Wu makes a timely critique of racial profiling, noting the practice “operates inexorably towards its extreme …. Being treated like a thug makes being a thug an attractive choice.”
If Wu’s lawyerly prose sometimes drags, his defiant yellow-in-a-black-and-white- world perspective is refreshing. He says he’s often been chided for teaching at Howard, instead of Harvard. Asians who blend into white culture are seen as normal, Wu writes. “The alternative, intentionally associating with African Americans, is [seen as] weird, some sort of naive error or purposeful subversion.” Wu calls on proud and principled Asian Americans to follow his example–to foster coalitions that accept racial differences and promote civic society. Yellow, he seems to say, is crucial to our multihued future. —Jeff Chang
The News About America: American Journalism in Peril. Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser. Knopf. $25.
Veteran journalists Downie and Kaiser, both with the Washington Post since 1964, start with a premise so simple they might be accused of stating the obvious: “News matters.” Good journalism, they write, is essential for good communities. At its best, it arms citizens with reliable information, exposes wrongdoing, and ensures accountability. But the authors know firsthand that “too much of what is offered as news today is untrustworthy, irresponsible, misleading, or incomplete.” And they know why: Modern media owners “focus more on the bottom line than on good journalism,” placing profits over public service and demanding a rate of return that would have made William Randolph Hearst blush.
As old newspaper hands, their analysis has a whiff of nostalgia about it; for them, Watergate was the high-water mark of American journalism, and things haven’t been quite the same since television came along. They all but ignore the role of magazines and other nondaily publications, include the kind of self-congratulatory quotes cub reporters are taught to scorn, and seem to think their own paper immune to the market forces corrupting the rest of the industry (“Profits do matter at the Washington Post,” they concede, “but it is news that matters most”). What matters most in this book is not the news–there isn’t much–but the passion of its authors. They write from a deep love of their profession–and from a genuine outrage at the way its values are being eroded by corporate greed.
Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill. Robert Whitaker. Perseus. $27.
TIn Mad in America Robert Whitaker laments that medical outcomes for schizophrenics in the United States “are now no better than they were in the first decades of the twentieth century, when the therapy of the day was to wrap the insane in wet sheets.” If Whitaker, a Pulitzer-nominated medical journalist from the Boston Globe, fails to examine all the social complexities behind this disturbing fact, he makes a convincing case for attributing it to the reliance on neuroleptic drugs like Thorazine and its offspring.
In 1954, when Thorazine went on the market, our mental-health system was still infused with eugenic notions of disease, under which the mentally ill were considered “defectives” to be isolated and, above all, prevented from reproducing. Insulin-induced coma, lobotomy, and electroshock were still accepted treatments for schizophrenia, and Thorazine was initially praised for producing “an effect similar to frontal lobotomy.” In the years that followed, Whitaker writes, the pharmaceutical industry, the government, and the medical profession colluded to spin neuroleptic drugs into popular treatments–despite a lack of evidence of their efficacy and abundant evidence that they “made people chronically ill, more prone to violence and criminal behavior, and more socially withdrawn.” Mad in America is a passionate, compellingly researched polemic, as fascinating as it is ultimately horrifying —Ben Ehrenreich
13 Hillbilly Giants. Robbie Fulks. Bloodshot.
Country-music iconoclast Robbie Fulks once critiqued modern-day Nashville with the song “Fuck This Town.” On the remarkable 13 Hillbilly Giants he salutes the genre’s wilder, weirder days with covers of obscure gems devoted to lust, regret, and the curse of alcohol. Flying fiddles, weeping steel guitars, and tinkling pianos set the pace as Fulks applies his raw, yearning voice to Jean Shepard’s jaunty “Act Like a Married Man,” which scolds a philanderer, and Hylo Brown’s hushed “Bury the Bottle With Me,” an embittered apology for a life of sin. While “Donna on My Mind” sounds a mellow note, “Burn On Love Fire” better reflects the sizzle of Giants. Even the tacky Porter Wagoner-Dolly Parton duet, “Jeannie’s Afraid of the Dark,” reaches an emotional intensity sorely missing from today’s country mainstream.
Blues Stop Knockin’. Lazy Lester. Antone’s
Amazingly rust-free, this affable swamp-blues institution has been working the groove since the late ’50s. Born Leslie Johnson, the Louisiana-bred Lester may be lazy, but he never seems tired on his irresistible new album: The slurred vocals and expressive harmonica boast a good-humored immediacy that perkier players only dream about. Shaped by jagged funk riffs, “I’m Your Breadmaker, Baby” delivers a sleazy come-on, while the leisurely “I’m Gonna Miss You (Like the Devil)” dismisses heartbreak as Lester murmurs, “These things I’ll overcome.” The supporting players, including Jimmie Vaughan (Stevie Ray’s bro) on spiky lead guitar, sound like they could rock all night. At this rate, Lester himself may just boogie forever, which would be a fine thing indeed.
Motherland. Natalie Merchant. Elektra.
Merchant owns one of pop’s more distinctive voices, but her strong identity can be a straitjacket. While Motherland is dominated by the usual weighty sensibility, it’s more engaging than previous efforts, thanks in part to producer T Bone Burnett, who’s added subtle textures that give warmth to Merchant’s precise singing. As always, she’s an eloquent observer of fallible humanity. “Tell Yourself” blends gentle folk rock with an empowering message for the young feminist. Merchant also delivers stinging rebukes to inconstant lovers in the quiet “I’m Not Gonna Beg” and the sultry “Put the Law on You,” which suggests a future as a torch singer. Confirmed fans won’t be disappointed by Motherland, and others may be pleasantly surprised.
—Music reviews by Jon Young
ABC Africa Abbas Kiarostami. 85 minutes. Abbas Kiarostami Production.
Directed in typically spare style by Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami, this documentary begins with a request for help seen spilling out of the filmmaker’s fax machine. The U.N. International Fund for Agricultural Development is inviting Kiarostami to document the progress of the Uganda Women’s Effort to Save Orphans, thereby calling attention to its struggles on behalf of the 1.5 million Ugandan children orphaned by war and AIDS. Accepting the challenge, Kiarostami approaches his 10 days of shooting in Kampala from a compassionate rather than an investigative angle–which, in its way, is no less political. The director shows us children at play and in death–the latter represented most chillingly through the image of a young aids victim being placed in a makeshift cardboard coffin and ridden away on the back of a bicycle. Still, ABC Africa (whose title simultaneously suggests children’s education and the filmmaker’s own fundamental approach) hardly amounts to a visual catalog of Ugandan misfortune. Much of this beautiful, vibrant work reflects the basic truth that waving a camcorder among children in rural portions of Africa will inspire no small amount of curiosity–and mugging for the camera. Objectivity, such as it can ever exist in a documentary, simply isn’t an option here.
A Constant Forge. Charles Kiselyak. 200 minutes. Lagniappe.
The genius that was the late writer-director John Cassavetes (Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under the Influence) couldn’t possibly fit the confines of an hour-long documentary–or even a two-hour one. So while this 200-minute biography starts strong and goes on (and on and on), its rambling approach seems an appropriate tribute to the expansive influence of this pioneer of American independent film, whose career spanned nearly 30 years. And besides, Cassavetes’ messy, challenging, even infuriating films rarely finished interrogating the human psyche in less than two and a half hours themselves. Forge reveals Cassavetes as an iconoclast and social critic of the highest order, using an astonishing collection of archival material: photographs, film clips, outtakes, home movies, and the artist’s cinema-philosophical journal entries–read with an uncanny degree of impersonation by actor Lenny Citrano. Moreover, the enthusiastic participation of Cassavetes’ wife and muse, Gena Rowlands, his filmmaking disciple, Sean Penn, and his scholar, Ray Carney, suggests that Cassavetes continues to command his admirers more than a decade after his demise.
Kandahar. Mohsen Makhmalbaf. 85 minutes. Avatar Films.
Beginning with the image of artificial legs falling by parachute toward the sand, Kandahar shocks us into recognizing that what seems surreal from a safe distance is a blunt fact of life in the Afghan desert. Men who have lost their limbs to land mines hobble on crutches in hopes of retrieving these heaven-sent (or at least U.N.-sent) prostheses. Like many Western critics who saw this Afghanistan-set drama at the Cannes Film Festival in May, I found it stilted and a bit disappointing, especially in the context of director Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s string of vibrant semidocumentaries (The Silence, A Moment of Innocence, among others). But, of course, that was in May, four months before the Taliban brutality to which the film alludes became so central to our lives. The film’s main plotline (loosely based on a true story) follows a journalist–born in Afghanistan and raised in Canada–who risks her life attempting to cross the desert into Kandahar to rescue her suicidal sister. As the journalist is forced to disguise her-self under cover of the traditional burka, the oppression of women under the Taliban regime becomes a central theme. In wide release starting in January, Kandahar has been tagged the topical drama most fit for wartime, art-house consumption. The film hasn’t exactly lost its flaws, but it has certainly gained a more attentive audience.
—Film reviews by Rob Nelson