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THE SUNDAY PROFILE

The Queen of Responsibility

She's been poor. She's been on her own. And, always, she's been employed. Now, as the state's director of social services, Eloise Anderson is an outspoken champion of welfare reform.

November 10, 1996|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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."

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