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No Free Lunch: One Man's Journey from Welfare to the American Dream.

by Rodney Carroll with Gary Karton, One World/Ballantine. April 2002 $23.00, ISBN 0-345-45229-1

Rodney Carroll's No Free Lunch runs counter to most rags-to-riches tales in that it makes no attempt to con the reader with a sense of self-righteousness and false hope conceived to persuade the disheartened and downtrodden that all things are possible if you just believe. It doesn't try to mitigate the ruthlessness of poverty. And, thankfully, that's not the case with this inspiring, true story of triumph over obstacles, faith over despair, and determination over challenge.

Readers will be engrossed by the story of struggle of an African-American man who fights to better himself against all odds amid the poverty of North Philadelphia, a maze of drugs, vice and gang violence, where any day could be the last if you make the wrong choices.

Cowritten with Gary Karton, a former Washington Post reporter and director of Special Projects for the Welfare to Work Partnership, Carroll's story is not an unusual one. Hundreds of thousands of young black men face a similar fate every day. Reared--along with his younger brother Courtney, and sister, Cheryl--by his loving grandmother when his alcoholic mother was no longer able to care for them, Carroll battles to retain his self-respect and dreams of other possibilities, even as the outside world tries to crush his will.

In one instance, a school counselor tells him he will not be admitted to a decent college despite his good grades. His attempts to flee his oppressive neighborhood fail, and it seems that he must embrace a life of crime to better his lot and help his family escape the cruel trap of welfare.

The authors work hard to connect the reader with Carroll's humanity, inner struggles and hopes as a young man, whether it's his resistance to join a gang in his school, or his emotional pain when his grandmother resists his mother's constant pressure to return her children. But it is welfare that is seen as the real enemy here, with its meager checks, mindless regulations and ubiquitous presence. Still, as Carroll notes, welfare recipients struggle to retain their dreams of improving their lives and getting their share of the American Dream. "The perception is that people are not looking for opportunities," Carroll writes. "The truth is that people on welfare don't get as many opportunities as others. And the ones they did get usually were the wrong ones."

For Carroll that golden opportunity comes with the passage of then-president Bill Clinton's 1996 Welfare Reform Act and the generous employment practices of the United Parcel Service (UPS), where Carroll started as a part-time truck loader. In no time, he rises through the ranks with hard work and new management ideas to become an effective supervisor despite a few miscues and setbacks. Again, the writers remain careful in not depicting his upward climb as an easy one, showing that Carroll is tested and challenged at each step along the way.

In the end, his persistence pays off as he is rewarded for his push to start a program that employs and trains welfare recipients, giving them a chance at a fresh start. Ultimately, Carroll becomes an important spokesman for the Welfare to Work Partnership as president and CEO, and speaks at a White House-sponsored town-hall meeting, where he basks in his moment of glory.

Carroll's poignant No Free Lunch should be required reading for anyone locked into the stifling oppressiveness of the welfare system and grinding poverty. This is no fairy tale about redemption and renewal, but a gritty, empowering, smartly written story of persistence and personal transformation. It's a book that will leave you cheering and full of optimism about the American Dream.

Robert Fleming was an award-winning reporter formerly with the New York Daily News. He is the author of The Wisdom of the Elders, The African American Writer's Handbook, and the upcoming Havoc After Dark: A Collection of Short Horror Fiction. An anthology, After Hours: A Collection of Erotica by African American Men, edited by Fleming, will be published by Putnam this summer, featuring such talents as John A. Williams, Charles Johnson, Alexs Pate, Colin Channer, Kalamu ya Salaam, Jervey Tervalon and Gary Phillips, among others. Fleming reviewed No Free Lunch on page 58.
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Copyright 2002, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Fleming, Robert
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 2002
Words:712
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