The Queen of Responsibility
From the dais, Eloise Anderson looks down at a woman taking the microphone to ask about the end of the welfare state, the evening’s topic at the University of San Francisco.
Minus the stylish jeans and jewelry, the woman could be a mirror image of Anderson a quarter century ago: a single mother, educated, ambitious and poor.
Now the two seem worlds apart.
Anderson, 54, is Gov. Pete Wilson’s appointed director of social services, a provocative and often flamboyant champion of the massive welfare reform mandated nationwide last August. The other woman is a welfare mother, who needs to complete an advanced degree to get the job she wants, she tells Anderson. Without a federal entitlement, the woman asks, “What will happen to me?”
The audience has been civil and Anderson, stylish herself in a banana-colored pantsuit, doesn’t want to sound hardhearted. So, she scolds the woman--politely: “A master’s degree is an unacceptable use of assistance.” Why not apply for a scholarship? Or work and go to school simultaneously?
What poor people really need to do, Anderson says later, is “to learn how to be poor.”
Eloise Anderson knows how to be poor.
Two decades ago, she was a newly divorced mother in Toledo, Ohio, and it seemed like her children had “teeth in their shoes.” Employed as a social worker, she held her family together with food stamps. When she wanted to improve her professional opportunities, Anderson worked a second job pumping gas to pay a baby sitter so she could take classes at night.
She went to bed at 12:30 a.m. On weekends, Anderson was up again at 5 a.m. to bake 10 loaves of bread for the week. She made her own potato chips and imitation Hostess cupcakes so her children wouldn’t feel they had less than other kids.
The mother of a foster daughter, an adopted daughter and a biological son, Anderson attracted friends, mentors and attention as she worked her way up to Wisconsin’s administrator of community services. In the appointed position, similar to the one she now holds, she experimented with early welfare reforms such as “bridefare,” a policy that encouraged marriage for mothers on public assistance.
After Wilson heard her on the “MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour,” he called her “a kindred spirit” and appointed Anderson in 1992 to oversee the state’s $16-billion Department of Social Services.
Now in one of the highest profile jobs in California, she’s still riding shotgun for welfare reform as state legislators prepare to replace Aid to Families With Dependent Children with programs that stress work and discourage teen pregnancy. Any differences of opinion the kindred spirits might have developed over the details of such a plan will remain private, Anderson says. Meanwhile, expecting a “huge and nasty” battle over the plan, which must be decided by July, she’s widening her focus beyond welfare reform to child welfare services.
Anyone who has heard her on “60 Minutes,” at the Republican convention or at any of a number of professional and civic meetings knows Anderson’s sound bites connect with much of the shifting national mood: It demeans poor people to assume they can’t work; if illegal immigrants can find jobs, anyone can; affirmative action implies minorities aren’t able to get jobs on their own merit; a welfare check is a poor substitute for a father; teen mothers can live with their parents or in foster homes with their children instead of in their own apartments; we need to take the halo status off moms and the villain status off dads; work is hard, there are no guarantees, but children will be better off watching their parents make the effort.
Her ideas sound refreshingly commonsensical, or infuriating and dangerous, depending on who’s listening.
“She’s deaf to reality when it doesn’t agree with her plan,” says state Sen. Diane Watson, who helped defeat Anderson’s first welfare reform proposal in the state legislature and who vows to combat the next.
Other political opponents in California call her a dangerous “propaganda machine” who would drastically reduce time limits for poor families beyond federal allowances, or who might separate children from mothers who can’t hold down a job.
But even some adversaries admire her for not fitting into any particular pigeonhole. “She combines conservative points of view with a real advocacy for the dignity and integrity of poor people,” says Lawrence Aber, director for Columbia University’s National Center for Children in Poverty, who sometimes has found himself agreeing with her in public debates.
“She is not an ideologue. She has beliefs and values that inform her policy positions. An ideologue doesn’t let facts modify them. She not only lets facts modify them, she seeks facts. That’s as important a characteristic in public administration as we have.”
Anderson acknowledges, for instance, that young children need parents at home to meet their developmental needs. Welfare mothers forced to work just have different choices to make than middle-class people, she contends. Why can’t fathers work two jobs? Why can’t mothers wait to have children until they can afford it? Why can’t a mother open a family day-care center, or share housing with other mothers? What are the churches doing?
Her staffers say Anderson isn’t interested whether anyone agrees with her. Rather, she believes her role is to present questions, to pioneer a vision, to be the Lewis and Clark of social reform, showing a new path to the “squatters” of the entrenched bureaucracy.
Anderson says her attitudes have been shaped largely by a unique set of childhood experiences that included an absent Catholic father, a book-smart Methodist mother, a German nanny, a Catholic school run by feminist nuns and Jesuit priests, and an adoptive father she has called a “burgundy neck”--a black redneck.
Her biological father left when she was 5. She reacted by going out and finding herself another one. Anderson invited the security guard in their complex to dinner, then instructed her mother to cook fried chicken and lemon meringue pie, and to put on lipstick and comb her hair. During dinner, she recalls, “I came out every five minutes and said ‘Are we in love yet?’ ”
They married a year later.
A jack of all trades, her new dad worked as a janitor when his entrepreneurial ventures fell through. But unlike their neighbors in industrial Toledo, Anderson says he never blamed setbacks on racism. When potential employers turned him down, she says that he’d go back, saying, “Try me. You might like me. I’ll volunteer.” It’s a suggestion she now passes on to the welfare mothers who tell her they can’t find work.
Anderson’s present is as much a patchwork of 20th century Americana as her past. She is now married to a white libertarian who remains in Madison, Wis. Her close friends run the gamut from John Birchers to people she’s convinced think like communists.
Her role models include Jesus Christ and Katharine Hepburn. She uses acupuncture to lose weight and charm to acquire free brownies in a coffeehouse.
A grandmother with sass, she’s become famous enough to attract fans in public places and mash notes from men who see her on TV.
She automatically opens doors for strangers.
And she plays the lottery.
The morning after her university speech, Anderson checks out of the Fairmont Hotel, carrying her own bag across the opulent lobby, past the drivers in hats and limos to the small state-owned Tempo driven by her director of public affairs, Corinne Chee.
Heading back to Sacramento, the pregnant Chee squeezes in behind the wheel and maneuvers through rush-hour traffic while Anderson, ignoring the golden, misty skyline of San Francisco, rehashes the previous evening and scans one of the four or five newspapers she reads every day. (She always said cow’s milk was bad for children, and now scientists have proved her right!)
Despite her high-profile career, Anderson thinks the best thing she has done so far is “try and raise” her three children.
She was “seriously in love” with her first husband, a “gentleman” who was working on his master’s degree but didn’t really want to be married, she says. She fought the divorce in court, but they eventually parted after five years.
When their son, Nolan Addison, began to complain about his dad, she remembers telling him, “You can’t be angry with him for my issues. I don’t trash your dad. I won’t allow you to do that.” After all, she says, her ex-husband was the man her son was going to emulate.
When the boy reached his teens, she lectured him about his responsibility to women, urging him never to become intimate with a woman unless “she says yes in clear English.” A college graduate, Nolan is a married father, working in Boulder, Colo.
As Chee speeds over the Bay Bridge, Anderson admits that she was less successful with her two daughters, neither of whom finished college.
She says her messages of hard work and sacrifice were unable to combat the effects of family separation and society’s message that they were victims. The daughter she adopted as a 2-year-old suffered a severe sense of loss and is searching for her biological parents. The foster daughter she took in as a 14-year-old became an unwed mother in her 30s.
“I was appalled, and she knew it,” Anderson says. “I thought it was a selfish act. . . . I see this a lot in people.” After an estrangement, she says they have reconciled, and now, she believes, “God gave me these two girls so I’d do what I did.”
Anderson says her experience has made her realize that removing children, even abused children, from biological parents to save them is a “cavalier notion.” Child safety is paramount, but social workers need more formal “risk assessment tools,” similar to those of police officers, so they won’t rely on bias or prejudice in their decisions, she says. They also need more resources to deal with issues of loss.
As Chee pulls off for breakfast on a trendy shopping street in Berkeley, Anderson continues: “We rescue the kid from this terrible home, we usually don’t know anything about the damn foster parents we’re putting them with.” (In October, the Youth Law Center and the National Center for Youth Law filed a lawsuit charging the state has not audited child welfare services in 23 counties since 1986.)
Sitting outside a coffeehouse on a shady sidewalk, Chee fields calls from the office on a cell phone, while Anderson turns to her coffee, her biscotti and her critics.
“People always want to discuss jobs,” she says. “They say, ‘There are no jobs.’ ‘We want a safety net.’
“The lack of jobs is not the big issue here. I think it’s the [emotional] wounds.”
What concerns her most about slashing welfare rolls is the small percentage of long-term recipients who are also substance-abusing parents. “We can get people to address the problems in their lives and start to heal themselves, but we can’t pretend like they have no barriers,” Anderson says. “They have to confront their ghosts.”
In her new welfare proposal, she will continue to recommend drug treatment, mental health services and community services for developmentally delayed parents. “Whether I get it or not is something else,” she adds.
Where others predict deepening despair, however, Anderson sees opportunity for children in the crisis that forced work may bring their parents.
“One of the reasons I’m excited about welfare reform is that we can get there early and not when the kid is coming into the child welfare system,” she says. Social workers can not only offer substance abuse programs to a mother whose addiction interferes with working, Anderson says, they can also threaten to remove her children.
“You’ve got to put that stress in front of her--’You’re not going to have your kids.’ Something she cares about, her kids. So her kids become another motivation for her to get her act together.”
Some of the most heart-rending opposition to welfare reform has come from the nation’s most prominent child advocate, Marian Wright Edelman. Founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Children’s Defense Fund, which has championed federal aid programs for decades, Edelman has called welfare reform a morally indefensible policy of “national child abandonment.”
But that movement has failed, Anderson maintains, because Edelman’s strategies aim to make middle-class white Americans feel guilty about poor black children. “The images she presents are nice images but most of America can’t relate to black children,” Anderson says.
While the majority of welfare recipients are white, she says African American recipients stand out like a few grains of pepper in a pile of salt. “If children are being neglected, or not being fed, [white Americans] view that as the parents being lazy. If the parents would get up off their butts and go to work, the kids would be taken care of.
“If you want a child advocacy program, you say to folks, ‘We’re in the process of making parents responsible, that’s what we’re about.’ ”
It particularly galls Anderson when unwed pregnant women are portrayed as victims.
“I’d love to have an ad campaign where I would say to people who are thinking about getting pregnant, ‘Pay attention to this man you’re getting ready to lay down with!’ ” she says.
Chee puts down her cell phone and laughs, envisioning the ad: “I like that. Pay attention to this man you’re getting ready to lay down with. That’s a good one. I’ll word it just that way.”
As they return to the car, a man without fingers on one hand approaches, giving them a polite, apologetic and extremely fast pitch about why he and his homeless daughter need $4.60. Anderson gives him a dollar and advises him to seek public assistance for his daughter. As he walks away, a local passes by, shaking his head: “He’s been using that line for five years.”
Anderson and Chee arrive in Sacramento in time to tape a cable TV show with another kindred spirit, Assemblyman Fred Aguiar (R-Chino), who hosts the show that airs in his district.
Anderson sits on the set in front of the U.S. and California flags and powders her own face. Unlike some other men who seem reduced to schoolboy smiles in Anderson’s presence, Aguiar is all business, his hair as slick as his suit. He asks familiar questions about her background and extra dry details of welfare reform.
Afterward, the second person in two days suggests she run for governor herself: “You’ll win,” the show’s producer says.
“They tell that to all the people and they don’t win,” Anderson retorts.
Still in her yellow pantsuit with the wide Katharine Hepburn legs, Anderson walks four blocks through the fallen leaves to a restaurant for lunch with friends. As usual, colleagues stop her on the sidewalk to talk about business or her hobby, golf.
Her new fame has made her wary, she remarks. She isn’t sure when someone will blow the smoke of flattery in her face and swell her ego to the point she can’t recognize her old self. Not much frightens her, Anderson says, except the possibility that she might lose her sense of the public servant she believes herself to be.
“It’s not that people are so in love with Eloise Anderson,” she reminds herself. Ordinary people respond to her positively, she surmises, because she gives them a voice: “Jane and Joe next door, they’re the backbone of this country. I think they hear their voice: ‘This is what we say at the kitchen table, over beer at the bar.’ ”
Anderson has already begun to think about life after Sacramento. Like most political appointees, she expects her job to expire with the end of Wilson’s term in two years. She hasn’t ruled out work in the private sector or she might consider teaching civics or American history, or even running a college somewhere. She might have time to try new projects: an orphanage with permanent, live-in workers, for instance, or a program for adolescent boys. Or maybe a college with housing for parents and their children.
In any case, she’ll likely return to Madison because, “It’s home.”
And when that day comes?
“I hope I can say I did no harm,” Anderson says. “And that we think about poor families with more respect than we do now.”
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Background: Raised in Toledo, Ohio, by parents who worked in blue-collar trades and sent her to Catholic school. Attended University of Toledo and graduated from Central State University (Ohio) in 1965 with a degree in sociology. Member of the U.S. Army Reserve from 1972 to ’77. Worked in social work and public administration for the state of Wisconsin before being appointed Administrator of the Division of Community Services by Gov. Tommy Thompson in 1988. Named director of the California Department of Social Services by Gov. Pete Wilson in 1992.
Family: Divorced once, now married to Pat LeMahieu, an agricultural consultant. Mother of three grown children: a foster daughter, an adopted daughter and a biological son.
Turning point: Failing to inspire unmarried welfare mothers to find work when she was a pregnant social worker.
Most provocative ideas: There should be a two-year limit to welfare; programs and threats to remove children will inspire substance-abusing mothers to work; welfare and affirmative action are demeaning to poor people.
* “When we remove a child, no matter what the situation, we do harm.”
* “The breadwinner notion is dead. Now we need both parents to be equally responsible.”
* “This is the only time in the next 100 years to be able to really take on the issues around families and make things better. If we don’t do it, society will turn its back on the social worker profession.”
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