Hints from Eloise

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


"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.


"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.

Reason: Who are your intellectual influences? Do you have any heroes?

Anderson: Mark Twain, because I like his voice. I think Mark Twain was a pure American, and his voice, his literate voice was one which I understood. He always brought up the hypocrisies in America in a way that we could swallow. He was funny. He was troubled by the conflict in society. If I had a hero, it would be him. If I had a heroine, it would probably be Sojourner Truth. Sojourner posed the question to feminists: Are black women considered women? If you're going to talk about feminist issues, then you can't talk about women's issues in general, because all of us don't have the same experience. Sojourner Truth brought more honesty to the women's movement than anybody [else]. So those are my two, other than my mom and dad.

Reason: How do class and gender issues relate to welfare reform?

Anderson: Child support issues probably need to be rethought in light of more than just middle-class women and their children. They need to be thought of in light of mothers and fathers of all economic levels. Another thing that needs to be rethought is this whole notion of a child and his two parents. What is it that we expect out of fathers vs. mothers? We say fatherhood is a check and that men are not expected to nurture their children. Surely we won't let him have custody of his child. We expect him to continue to pay for a woman that he no longer has a relationship with, and we expect her to do nothing in terms of financial status. The woman, we base her value to the family on nurturing, not financial responsibility.

In the way that we structure welfare and the way we structure our argument, we basically say that she was not a willing partner in the conception of this child, that he was somehow responsible for this without her consent, and that she had nothing to do with getting pregnant. Therefore he bears all the financial burden. I think that is an unfair policy, which means that we have to rethink custody. If a father has a lot of resources and mom has very few resources, and we want the child to continue to live in the comfort the father provided, maybe the father ought to have custody.

Reason: It has always struck me that family law….

Anderson: Is prejudiced against men.

Reason: …is biased against men on many levels. For example, if a woman gets pregnant, and the man wants to keep the child but she wants an abortion….

Anderson: She wins.

Reason: But if he wants an abortion and she wants to keep the child, he is on the hook. Do you think that as we start rethinking the roles of families we may begin to question these ingrained inconsistencies?

Anderson: Just because it's ingrained doesn't mean that we can't pose the question and get some different answers. I don't think we're going to be able to manage family relationships unless we change the laws that we have, because the laws are based on a condition that doesn't exist for us anymore: women staying home and taking care of the children.

Reason: Women working outside the home–it seems to me that there is a little schizophrenia on this issue, especially among your conservative allies, who are torn between wanting women to stay home as a domestic ideal and not wanting to use government money to pay women to stay home. What are the issues regarding the role of mothers?

Anderson: We don't know where we are on this whole notion of mothers working. We want to say, on the one hand, we don't want to do welfare. We don't want to pay for someone to sit home and do nothing. But on the other hand, we believe somebody ought to be home with the kids. The concern, I think, that is hidden here is not just infant care, it's also what happens to adolescents when moms aren't home. Because adolescents come home to an empty home, and adolescents get pregnant between 3 and 6 in the afternoon. So the question is, if we are going to put both parents in the workplace, then what are we going to do with our children?

Reason: Your proposal to drastically alter Aid to Families with Dependent Children would have put you on the lunatic fringe of this debate as recently as five years ago. Yet now your ideas are driving the debate. What does this say about the possibility for meaningful change? To put you on the spot, what does this say about the role of an individual as an agent of change?

Anderson: My grandmother once said, "All you have to do is sit down, because what goes around will come around." So if you have any belief that you actually believe in, you should live up to that. It's not necessarily that I drove the debate. It is like I'm on a ship and I am high enough on the ship so that I can actually see the shore, but everyone else down on the deck can't see the shore. So I say, "There's the shore," and everybody says that she's crazy, she's lost it. But pretty soon we get close enough to the shore that everybody else can see it.

Reason: Welfare is often painted in black face. What role does race play in the debate?

Anderson: I think there's an underlying belief in this country that we need to push to the surface. Many people believe that blacks are intellectually inferior. So a lot of people believe that we must have a system to take care of blacks, because they surely can't compete with us whites and Asians. The other thing is the subtle demonizing of blacks in the welfare debate. Every time we have something negative to say about welfare, there is a black mother or a black male. Any time you have anything positive to say about welfare, there's a white mother. These two things merge in the debate about welfare. Yet if people look at history, they would also know that most blacks did not come to welfare until the late '50s and '60s. What were they doing all those other years? Working.

Reason: Who's on welfare in California?

Anderson: A little bit of everybody. I mean, we've got two-parent families on aid. We've got single moms who've never been married on aid. That's our smallest group.

Reason: Really?

Anderson: Our largest group is women who have been married.

Reason: That contravenes the stereotype, which is that the largest group is women who never married and had children out of wedlock. Of those who are chronically on welfare, would the largest group still be women who have never married?

Anderson: We've only got 81,000 women on assistance who never married, never worked.

Reason: Out of how many?

Anderson: Whew, 900,000.

Reason: So less than 10 percent.

Anderson: Yes.

Reason: You have done some groundbreaking research on intergenerational welfare with regard to the age of the fathers of babies born to teenaged mothers. What did you find?

Anderson: When I first started looking at marriage in AFDC, I was interested in putting a proposal together that actually gets people married. I thought that teenagers were having relationships pretty much in their peer group.

Reason: That teen pregnancies were the result of condoms breaking in the back seats of cars.

Anderson: Yeah, like it used to be for us, R-I-G-H-T? Well, I was shocked when I looked at the data and found out that most teenaged girls are with men who are five years and [more] above their ages. The younger they are, the older the male. The closer they are to 18, the younger the male. So, if I'm 18 years old and pregnant, I'm more likely to have a 20-year-old or 22-year-old that I got pregnant with than if I was 16 years old. If I'm 16 years old, I'm more likely to have a 25-year-old than I am to have a 19- or 20-year-old.

Reason: Given this reality, programs that teach teenagers how to put condoms on bananas won't do much to reduce teen pregnancy.

Anderson: No, because we're focusing on the wrong group. We continue to have teen pregnancy programs that focus on teens. I think we need to focus on adult men and fathers of these daughters, wherever they are located, and mothers of the teenaged girl.

Reason: What kind of program would focus on men? Would it be that if you commit statutory rape, you go to jail?

Anderson: Absolutely.

Reason: Or if you don't commit statutory rape, but you have a job, then you pay for the child?

Anderson: I'm torn. I think that when you cross the line, you go to jail. If you have resources, you go to jail and you pay for the child. If the mother is too young, I'm one for saying, "Dad, you take the child. You raise it."

Reason: Where are we with welfare reform? Congress has passed a law that supposedly ends the welfare entitlement, replacing it with block grants. What has changed in California since the law passed?

Anderson: Nothing yet. The governor has submitted a proposal to the legislature, and they stomp on it, trample on it, kick it around, maybe even throw it in the trash can, burn it. There's a number of things they can do with it. Dance around it. Then they will give him something back. I'm trying to help structure the public debate on it. I think the way that we're going about it in California is good for the long term. It is wide open. Everybody is at the table.

Reason: What are the principles that should guide public assistance programs under a block grant system?

Anderson: Work. The core policy of AFDC is to keep mothers at home with their children. That policy has to be eliminated. The core policy of the new program ought to be to help people get to work as quickly as possible. And to help people short term who need help. After that there's not much left. You're out of work. You got sick, whatever. I give you some help, then off to work you go.

I am concerned that we will try to do more than that. This is not the program to do more than that. We should help people get to the first rung of the ladder, which is a minimum wage job. Anything after that ought to be done someplace else in some other program, if that's what society wants to do. But that's not what this program should be about.

We have to get away from this notion that government is responsible for getting people out of poverty. People get out of poverty with their own efforts, not with our efforts. So we should put time limits on people and say that we will help you for this amount of time, and then stick to it.

Reason: You say the goal of welfare should be a minimum wage job. What do you say to defenders of the status quo who say a) these jobs don't exist or b) these are dead-end jobs?

Anderson: Well, let's talk about the jobs that don't exist. The California Economic Development Department did a study down in Simi Valley and Ontario [California] to find out if there were such jobs. Well, they found 6,000. The employers say, "Nobody wants these jobs. Why would we post them? We can't get Americans to take them." If employers believe that Americans will take these jobs, they will be advertising them.

Dead-end jobs. You know, this is a new philosophy. It's a job. If you want to go somewhere else, go somewhere else. We're supposed to be a free people. If that job doesn't take you where you want to go, move to another job. We don't do slavery anymore. So you don't have to stay on that job. If you go there and there's no movement in that organization, then you're free to go get another one.

Somewhere in the '60s, we started to believe that work was supposed to make us happy. I didn't grow up thinking work was supposed to make us happy. I tell my kids, "If you want to be happy, be happy at home." Your home life is supposed to make you happy, not work. If you're lucky, you'll find a job that brings together the vocational and avocational.

Reason: In California, you've said, nothing has changed in terms of the actual welfare program. Politicians are prone to hyperbole, and for all of the self-congratulation, one might have thought that Congress had toppled the entire New Deal. Has there been a real change?

Anderson: I think the states will get there, most of them, left to their own devices. Most of the states are trekking down the path of work. They are trekking down the path of short- term assistance. The relationship between the feds and states in domestic policy shifted just a little bit, and that little shift is going to open the door for a larger movement toward the federal government stepping away from domestic issues where it actually has no constitutional authority to be.

The other thing that I think happened is the beginning of a very different kind of discussion. This one is going to be harder. I'm hearing more and more people talk about how we are responsible for what happens to us individually. The government is not responsible for my happiness. I am responsible for my own. The government is not responsible for me when I do something stupid. I'm responsible for that. I'm hearing that more and more.

Reason: According to the author of a recent Mirabella magazine article that featured you, "Politicians have gotten the message that America no longer sees itself as a rich, generous country willing to help citizens through tough times. Instead, there's a meanness and anger in the land. People feel frustrated that their own lives are less than they have hoped for and don't want their tax dollars to support people perceived as freeloaders." Is there a meanness and anger in this land?

Anderson: The Mirabella writer believes that people who say, "I don't need to take care of that person," are mean-spirited. I think that 50 percent of Americans feel that way.

I have two neighbors in Wisconsin. One lives directly beside me, and the other one lives directly behind me. The family who lives beside me, he is a truck driver and she takes care of old people. She is an in-home support worker. She makes minimum wage and he makes a little bit above that, and he's not always working. She gets up at 5 o'clock in the morning and she catches the bus at 6 o'clock to get to work. And she takes care of her family. They've never been on aid.

The woman behind her can't even get her kids to school at 9 o'clock. She is still in bed until 9 o'clock in the morning. So her kids get themselves dressed and get off to school. We know this because sometimes her kids don't have socks on. But she's in bed. At 2 or 3 in the morning she's in her house partying. That's why she can't get up in the morning. But when she gets to the store, she brings out her food stamps and she eats better than anybody else. Her rent's paid. Her clothes are taken care of. She does nothing.

[The people next to me are] a poor working family. They pay for this woman to stay home. I'm sorry–that's not mean-spirited. That's saying, "I'm sick and tired of taking care of somebody else who's got nothing wrong with them and can hang out all night." That's not the way every AFDC mom is. But that's what they see.

And even if the mom didn't party–even if the mom got up in the morning and sent her kids to school–the question is, Why can't she work for her children, like this mom over here is working for her children? Why shouldn't she take care of her kids? That's the issue here. When women [did not] work by and large, we could do this. But now you've got all these moms going to work, and they think, "Wait a minute. Why am I busting my rear end to get up every day to go to work, and this woman is staying home?"

Reason: How do we get out of this situation?

Anderson: I think there are two things that have to happen. Parents have to learn to talk to their children about sex. That is not the schools' responsibility. It is the parents' responsibility. The other [problem] is that we abandon our adolescents. If they are as tall as we are and as big as we are, we think that they don't need us anymore. They are on their own. And what do we give them instead of emotional care? We give them toys. We give them material things. We need to put ourselves back into the lives of our children. One of the things we know about adolescent pregnancy is that adolescents get pregnant because they are looking for affection.

Reason: You compare a self-sufficient, working-class family who works hard to make ends meet to a welfare mother who lives off the system. Charles Murray, in many of his writings, creates similar scenarios to show how the welfare state undermines the efforts of the first family by making them suckers for working, when they could live at a similar material level and never leave the couch. How do you get out of this dilemma without cutting off the benefits, including the cash grants, food stamps, and housing subsidies?

Anderson: The best way to do it is one that we are not going to be able to stomach as a nation, which is to cut it off. But we can't do that. We don't know what the consequences of that will be. So the second best way to do that is what I think you've got people trying to do–wean people off. That is, cut it down and cut it down until it mostly goes away.

Reason: Time limits are central to every welfare reform proposal of which I'm aware.

Anderson: That's because it allows politicians to step into the unknown on someone else's watch [laughter].

Reason: Are there any states where anybody has reached their limit and been cut off, cold turkey, from AFDC and other government support?

Anderson: No, I think the only state where they may be getting close is New Jersey. But nobody has come up against it yet. I don't know how you would hit this cold turkey, because you always have general assistance sitting there.

Reason: Do you think politicians have the backbone to cut off the checks when the time comes, or is it simply empty rhetoric?

Anderson: I believe that our representatives really represent us. No matter what we think about them, they represent us. And if they're scared to jump off, they've got good reason to be, because the American people don't stay on course very long. The question is not whether politicians would allow this to happen. It's whether the American people would allow this to happen. There's a bunch of us who would.

Reason: The left has gone ballistic on welfare reform, saying that kids are going to be hurt. It's clear that no one has read this welfare bill–at least no one being quoted. It says the time limit doesn't apply to money that is earmarked for the child. I'm told that it's possible to structure the AFDC grant so that 95 percent goes to the kid from the outset. So five years out, a woman is looking at a 5 percent reduction in her cash, which doesn't even touch her Medicaid, food stamps, and housing subsidies. Again, is there any real change here?

Anderson: On the cash grant side, there are changes. Many governors are really reducing the grant, with a lot of emphasis on putting people to work. It may not seem like a big change. But if you change the policy–if you say, "I'm not giving you money to help you stay home. You're not going to be sitting there watching Oprah anymore. At least not on my dime"–you can really change the nature of this program.

I say to you after you come in three or four times, "Hi, what are you doing here?" And you say, "I got pregnant." I say, "So, why are you here?" And you say, "Well, I don't have a job." And I say, "Well, I have a job for you!" You say, "Well, I'm pregnant." But I respond, "So? A lot of folks I know work while they are pregnant. Come back and see me the day after you deliver. We'll take care of you then." We ought to stop the notion [that] you can sit around on maternity leave. [If we do,] a whole bunch of folks will decide that this is not the place they want to go. They might go back out the door and look at Joe, the father of the child, and ask him, "How much did you say you can make at that job?" "I can make $6.00 a hour," Joe responds. "Sure looks mighty good. Let's go get married." So you change a lot of behavior with that one move.

Another person comes in, and what they really need is four tires to get to work. [As things stand,] we can't give you the money to get the four tires. We have to bring you into the program, force you to quit your job, for you to become eligible. Now, hopefully, a lot of states will say, "You need four tires? Here's $400 to get the tires, which should be paid back in some form–dollars or community service. I don't want to see you again."

Reason: Welfare is in the spotlight currently. But there are indications that foster care may be the next big social welfare issue. You are responsible for California's foster care system. Is there a coming crisis, and what are the issues?

Anderson: The whole child protective system is a failure, for a couple of reasons. First of all, our workers go into homes without good tools to make assessments. The schools of social work, which put out most of the people, do not develop management skills. They have no idea how to manage the work that they are doing. They are counselors. But this is a police system. It is not managed like a police system, and it should be. That is a fault of the educational system. The second thing is that they are very focused on poverty: Poverty is the reason for all this stuff advocates see. They walk into a home, and their view of the family is colored by material deprivation, so they can't see past that.

Reason: Is this because these social workers are not from those communities?

Anderson: I think that's an issue, except that we have a lot of social workers who actually come from those communities. Many come out of inner-city black communities, and they go back to those communities and they can't perform, because what they've been taught in schools is irrelevant to the work they are doing. The second thing is that most of our people across the country know very little about child development. So we're moving kids, and we don't have a clue where that kid is in his or her development. Nor do we ask the questions about whether a foster family is right for a child in his or her particular state of development when we get ready to place the child.

Reason: Some of the criticism of foster care is aimed at the system's emphasis on family preservation. It revolves around children who have been returned to their families and then seriously abused. Do we need to rethink the issue? Do we need to think more about adoption?

Anderson: No. That's the wrong end. We need to think about how we make an assessment to pull the kid. Evidently, we're sending the wrong kid back home to the wrong family. Family preservation says that safety is number one. Safety is not number two or three. It's number one. The question you have to ask when you're ready to remove the kid or reunify a family is, Is this child safe? If the child is not safe, the next question you would ask is, Do I have the resources to keep this child safe at home? If your answer is no, then the child doesn't go home. So it's not family preservation that's the issue; it's the assessment. We are making poor assessments.

Reason: Are people making poor assessments because they are taking an unrealistic view of the system in which they are operating? A child's home life may be less than perfect, but the foster care system may be even worse.

Anderson: I think we have workers that go into a family and don't know what to look for because we haven't good criteria. We need to give workers an assessment tool so that they can ask the right questions.

When I used to do this work, I'd go into a home and sit there and just watch mom for a while, just watch her with her kids. I didn't care what the house looked like. I might spend a whole day just sitting on the sofa watching, just trying to get myself invisible in the family. Then, before I'd leave that day, I'd say, "Tell me about each of your children." Before I walked out of the house, I knew about how she related to her kids, where her stress points were, which kid she didn't like, which kid was going to be problematic for her, etc. When do our workers do that kind of work?

When I was working at a state agency, they did some filming on five families on AFDC. Four of them were black, one was white. We were sitting around, all us top executives, looking at these films. The black families had clean houses and the kids were dressed up, and everyone was saying how wonderful these four mothers were. The white female was out of shape, fat, and you could see the roaches in the film. Soda bottles were going up the wall, the dishes were all over the place, and people were getting embarrassed by how crappy this was. I said the family with the dirty house has the mother with the best parenting skills. She is not going to be a problem. She is going to be hard for the social worker to deal with, but her family structure is much better than these four.

Let's look at what each one of these mothers has said about her daughters. One mother and her daughter don't even look at each other. She calls a daughter a heifer. What is that? Why would you call your daughter a heifer? I mean, are you paying attention to relationship issues here? What were they all looking at? Material issues.

Reason: What is the role of the private sector in reforming the child welfare system?

Anderson: I would actually like to see all this contracted out except the police function. The police function is to go in and make an assessment of whether the kid ought to remain home or the kid ought to be removed. That's the only part that I think should stay with the counties or the state. Everything else–all the services, foster care, the adoption, in-home workers–ought to be contracted out to a nonprofit or a for-profit. I don't have a problem with profit. I don't care who it is, but the government ought to get out of this business.

Why should they get out of this business? Because if they get out of the business, you can contract it out to people who live and work in those communities. You can go into the home, you can go into the neighborhood, which is what we've got to start doing. You can't keep a kid safe from an office downtown. The whole community has to be involved in the safety of that child.

Reason: You moved the debate on AFDC. Do you see similar successes in child welfare?

Anderson: Yes. We've moved child welfare quietly, behind the scenes, in the direction that we want to go. The national debate around child welfare needs to happen the way it did with AFDC. I'm concerned that the debate will be family preservation vs. adoption, and I think that's the wrong debate. The debate is who are we deciding to take out of the home. So I might have to put my toe in that water.

Reason: How do you see yourself moving the debate after Pete Wilson's tenure?

Anderson: I never thought I wanted to write until I took this job. I never thought I had much to say. I am an applied person, not an academician. I'm a person who knows how to work and move things. I'm not an intellectual person. But I actually think I have some things to say. I'd like to do something that would allow me to give another view, because I have another view of what I think is going on.

I've been around government for 20 years, and I have a view of government as a manager. I've been mostly a manager in government, not a policy wonk. And I have some views on how to make it work better. And we need to talk about that, or you know what? We're going to lose our freedom in this country. And that scares me a lot.

Reason: Are you considering running for public office?

Anderson: Absolutely not. Well, I don't know. You know I said that I'd never live in California, so I'm away from saying "never." So I won't do that. I don't know what's going to be the next step.