A Hard-Liner Stirs the Welfare Debate : State agency head takes a tough-love approach

Eloise Anderson, the outspoken director of California’s Department of Social Services, goes too far when she says the nation should abolish Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the welfare program that is often the provider of last resort for poor children. But some of her provocative points, which she reiterated last week on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” make eminent sense--like her refusal to treat welfare recipients like children and her insistence that they work.

Anderson is more conservative than most of the House Republicans who want to give the states block grants for welfare funding and allow wide latitude in determining who gets what and under what terms.

She holds high expectations for welfare recipients. She says to them, “You are .J.J. perfectly capable of taking care of yourself, with a little help. We don’t think that you’re helpless .J.J. incompetent .J.J. stupid. We think you’re exactly like us.” She expects welfare recipients to get a job, even if they have never worked or they believe a particular job is beneath them. Are there enough jobs sweeping floors for the state’s 800,000 adult welfare recipients? Anderson replies that if illegal immigrants can find jobs, welfare recipients can find jobs. Maybe not the jobs they want. But jobs.

The welfare director also argues for fairness. Why, she asks, should a poor working person who pays taxes subsidize a neighbor who stays at home on welfare? Good question. The Clinton Administration recognizes, with its earned income credit, that the working poor shouldn’t be taxed much.


Anderson has no argument with providing for widows and orphans, the original subjects of the federal AFDC program, which was created 60 years ago. But she points out that most recipients are not widows and their children are not orphans. True--but in this era of single mothers and deadbeat dads, the definitions of who should be eligible for at least temporary help have to be broader than they were in the 1930s.

She is protective of teen-age mothers, who tend to stay on welfare a long time. Anderson, and the welfare reform bill pending in Congress, would require mothers under the age of 18 to live with their parents or other responsible adults to qualify for assistance. Allowing a 15-year-old with a baby to set up her own apartment is “double-duty child abuse,” according to Anderson. That situation would leave the teen-ager vulnerable. Two out of three teen-age mothers were made pregnant not by the boy next door but by older men who sometimes take unfair advantage, Anderson says.

When her own children were young, Anderson pumped gas to support them after her husband moved out. Did she receive AFDC? No--but during her crisis, she relied--temporarily--on food stamps and day care subsidies. Because she is African American and outspoken, Gov. Pete Wilson has been accused of using her to make points otherwise unsaid, and she has been told many times that no white person could get away with making the same remarks. Anderson rejects that argument, which does seem racist. After all, the majority of welfare recipients are not black. It’s not about race, she says. It’s about looking differently at welfare. She’s right on this point.

Eloise Anderson’s prescription for parents and children in need is not the cure-all for welfare dependency, but she makes some compelling arguments. Her strong and unapologetic voice belongs in the debate. She should not and cannot be name-called out of the discussion.