Hints from Eloise

Welfare-reform pioneer Eloise Anderson speaks bluntly--as always--about race, class, sex, and the realities of "the system."

Welfare-reform pioneer Eloise Anderson speaks bluntly--as always--about race, class, sex, and the realities of "the system."

Interviewed by Michael W. Lynch

"Do you think we should completely abolish welfare?" Leslie Stahl of 60 Minutes asks a contemplative Eloise Anderson, director of California's Department of Social Services, on national TV.

Anderson, staring straight into Stahl's eyes, replies firmly, "Yes."

"You do?" Stahl responds, visibly taken aback.

"Yeah."

"What about those people who find it too hard to work?" asks Stahl after emitting a "Wow."

"I don't understand finding it too hard to work."

This is the dialogue--played repeatedly in ads for the 60 Minutes episode--that propelled Anderson onto the national stage. She was already known to welfare experts as one of a band of outside-the-Beltway reformers, including such Republican governors as her former boss, Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson, who pushed the debate forward. In a world in which policy makers speak in circumlocutions, Anderson stands out as a straight shooter. Her bluntness once caused the Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector to quip that he enjoys sitting on panels with Anderson because she is the only person in the country who is to the right of him on this issue.

Anderson developed her views not based on abstract theory, however correct, but from seeing the workings of the system day in and day out and its effects on people. Before rising to run Wisconsin's welfare system she had actually been in the system herself. She was a community organizer in Toledo, Ohio, and Milwaukee in the mid-1960s before getting married and leaving the work force to raise three children. But her husband left her in 1973, and she found herself in the same position as most women who go on welfare: involuntarily single with children to support and dated job skills. Anderson signed up for food stamps. But instead of accepting cash assistance, she pumped gas before resuming her career as a social worker. She came to California in 1992, attracted by the chance to work on child welfare issues, a concern she has quietly addressed while welfare reform has occupied the national stage. Today, she runs the country's largest welfare system, $16 billion in total programs.

Working in the system made Anderson an effective advocate for change. She not only makes a compelling case that we should abolish welfare, but she is as comfortable arguing it in a room full of welfare recipients as she is in a room full of middle-class policy makers. Anderson advises people who want to work on social policy to first work on the system's front lines. If that is not possible, she says, they should at least spend some time at welfare offices and social service centers. She still visits welfare offices at least once a month to interact with front-line workers and the people her system serves.

Welfare reform is now well under way. Congress ended the entitlement to welfare in 1996, giving states lump-sum block grants. Some states, such as Wisconsin, Michigan, and New Jersey, have already erected new welfare apparatuses with time limits and work requirements as central organizing principles. Others are still trying to come up with a new system. They include California, which is home to 12 percent of the nation's population but 20 percent of its welfare recipients.

Washington Editor Michael W. Lynch interviewed Anderson in her Sacramento office in December and February.

Reason: What in your background made you want to change welfare?

Eloise Anderson: I'm a commoner. I'm a blue-collar Midwesterner and Catholic. If I were white--meaning being allowed to be a human being with all the complexities that humans develop--I'd be perceived as German, because my socialization was within a German cultural community. My notions about freedom and what democracy's all about don't have very much room for public social welfare systems of the type that we designed, created, and continue to perpetuate in this country.

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