Spotlight: She Helps Moms Kick Welfare


On her desk is a picture of an Indian swami. On a table in the corner of her office lie a piece of crystal, a candle, a bell, and a stick of burning incense. Mantra music plays in the background.

No, she's not a tarot-card reader, a fortune teller, or a mystic. But what this dark-complexioned woman with warm, cheerful eyes does is nevertheless remarkable: she gets poor, single mothers off welfare and into the working world—permanently.

Lupe Anguiano is president of National Women's Employment and Education, Inc. (NWEE), an organization that works with businesses to secure jobs for low-income women who would otherwise depend on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Working within established hiring processes, she shows employers that it makes good business sense to hire these women—without government subsidies for training them. She says her placement rate is nearly twice the government's, at about one-quarter the cost.

Anguiano's fresh approach is a product of her first-hand experience working in the welfare bureaucracy, as well as her belief "that all of us were created in the likeness of God and that we were all created to be happy and successful." Raised in Saticoy, California, in a family of migrant farmworkers, she became a nun at the age of 20. She left the convent 15 years later because local church officials disapproved of her efforts at housing reform.

In 1970, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare invited her to participate in a project to improve the status of women. President Nixon's assistant for welfare reform, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, was recommending income maintenance as a welfare strategy. But "poor women," Anguiano found out, "were vehemently opposed to it. Nonprofits who make a living out of being advocates of the poor were saying they needed more welfare. The government was saying we just need to streamline and computerize and give everyone a check. The women were saying this is very dehumanizing."

Anguiano wanted a welfare policy geared toward employment, not income maintenance. But, she says, "I got nowhere with the administration and even with women's groups. Here were feminists, mostly higher-middle-class women, saying that they wanted to become self-sufficient, but when it came to poor women, they wanted welfare to stay."

Discouraged by the icy reception to her ideas inside the Beltway, Anguiano accepted an offer to be a regional director for the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, on the condition that welfare reform would be her priority issue. Taking a pay cut of nearly 50 percent, Anguiano moved into the public-housing projects in San Antonio, Texas, to see firsthand what welfare mothers experience. "That," she says with a smile, "is where all the fun started."

The women, she discovered, all wanted to get off welfare. So Anguiano designed "employment-readiness" classes to teach such subjects as personal grooming, interview techniques, and coping with job related stress. She set up emergency funds, helped arrange child care and transportation, and provided continuing moral support. The Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs contributed money for the women's training.

In November 1973, Anguiano's first class of 50 women held a "Let's Get Off Welfare!" demonstration. After securing jobs, they marched to the welfare office and returned their checks. Within six months, 500 NWEE graduates were working.

Anguiano stresses that her program, which operates in New York, California, Texas, and several other states, does not pay employers to train welfare recipients. "When you do that, you are marketing the women as charity cases. The woman comes into the company labeled as a welfare recipient. The vision of the company is that she's not able to do anything."

Instead, Anguiano uses employers' usual hiring processes to get women into entry level jobs ranging from customer service representative to sheet metal worker—the kinds of positions that "are open everywhere." Companies will pay for the training, Anguiano has found, "but they won't put out the money unless you're productive." So she teaches the women to do "more than their share of whatever it is they're hired to do—even if their situation isn't the best." Corporate volunteers offer assistance: for example, Chase Manhattan Bank has conducted interview workshops; New York Telephone has taught telephone techniques; and Honeywell has given advice on personal budgeting.

Daily 20-minute meditation sessions—"a must," says Anguiano—help her students steel their minds and "come to terms with the fact that the solutions for everything are really within themselves." Once in the work world, she argues, "there's just no way they're going to get back on welfare, because they're starting to buy things, they and their kids are happy, and they have more pride."

The numbers bear her out. NWEE boasts an 85 percent placement rate and an 88 percent job retention rate after one year. By contrast, the government's placement rate is 45–50 percent—at a cost of $12,000 or more per person, compared to NWEE's $2,500.

But while Lupe Anguiano is less than sanguine about the ability of the current system to solve welfare problems, her faith in individuals is boundless. She, and the women she's worked with, prove her strongest conviction: "Everyone was created to succeed in life."

Lucy Braun is assistant managing editor of REASON.