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Spring 1995
   
California's Back-to-Reality Welfare Reform
Carolyn Lochhead
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With red-hot intensity, Eloise Anderson despises the welfare system she heads for California—the state that consumes fully a quarter of the nation's spending on Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the main cash welfare program.

Anderson views AFDC as a ruinously destructive social force that has undermined family formation, marginalized poor men, and stunted children. If Congress frees the states to run welfare, as it may well do, Anderson is determined to remake California's welfare system with the interests of children uppermost in her mind. The current system, she says, is nothing less than "government-sponsored child abuse." And the only way to stop it is to "stop pumping in the money." At the dawn of the welfare system's biggest upheaval since the Great Society, the example she sets in this huge state that is ever the nation's bellwether will be crucial.

She has strong support from her boss, Governor Pete Wilson, who has made welfare reform a top priority for his second term. As a tested political plank that helped assure Wilson's reelection in 1994, Anderson-style welfare reform could serve as the springboard for a possible Wilson bid for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination.

Wilson himself calls welfare an impending fiscal and social calamity. Nearly 9 percent of the state's population—some 2.9 million people—is now on AFDC, at a cost of $7.2 billion, half of it paid by federal taxes. California spends twice as much on AFDC as New York State, the next-highest spender, with a population and welfare caseload roughly half the size of California's. That $7.2 billion does not include the host of programs that attend AFDC and cost tens of billions more: food stamps, Medicaid, foster care, and public housing. Including these programs, the total welfare caseload in California is some 5 million people.

The caseload has mushroomed by 40 percent since 1990, while the population has grown only 9.4 percent. Citizen children of illegal immigrants make up 14 percent of the caseload. A third of state births are out of wedlock, and more than half of California women on AFDC had their first child in their teens.

Deciding that welfare reform would be key to his political future, Governor Wilson mounted an exhaustive national search for a new social services director in 1992. He hired Anderson away from Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, whose much-watched welfare reforms she had helped design. She now heads a $16 billion agency.

Anderson believes that the AFDC check is the root of a social catastrophe that she has watched ripen since she began her career 30 years ago as a social worker in Toledo, Ohio. She believes that society must find the will to say, "If you decide to engage in an intimate sexual relationship with each other, there are consequences to that behavior. You and dad need to figure out how you're going to take care of that child. Right now, nobody feels that they are responsible. It's the government. Well, that's got to stop."

Now 52, Anderson grew up in a poor Toledo neighborhood that was absorbing a huge postwar immigration from two very different cultures—from the South and from Eastern Europe. In 1965 she graduated from Central State University near Dayton with a degree in sociology and went to work as a community organizer for a settlement house. Later she became what then was called a "woman's worker": she aided adoptions, helped mothers in danger of losing their children, and tried to get women off AFDC.

In a matter-of-fact style bare of sentimental flourishes, Anderson says her father, after failing at several businesses, worked as a factory hand, laborer, and school janitor. Her mother "cleaned houses and took care of other people's children."

"I grew up around people who were poor," Anderson explains. Unusual among policy makers, she can draw on knowledge that comes from firsthand experience. "I lived next door to and around people who were on AFDC, so I know the games that they play," she says. "This is not living in the suburbs and saying, ‘Well, this is the way these people are.’" Though she follows the academic research to see how it compares with what she sees happening on the ground, Anderson spends a lot of time talking with welfare mothers. "I'm just a commoner," she says.

Anderson's philosophy rests on respect for poor people and a conviction that AFDC recipients act in their own self-interest. "These people are not inferior," she insists. "They are not irrational." Nothing inflames her more than the idea—a powerful undercurrent on both the conservative and the liberal sides of the welfare debate—that AFDC recipients cannot control their behavior, cannot be held responsible for their lives, and cannot take care of themselves.

With Wilson's blessing, Anderson has carried out several major AFDC reforms in the face of relentless opposition. She started by cracking down on fraud. Then she steadily ratcheted down grant levels while sharply boosting work incentives. She has sought to deny additional money to AFDC families who have additional children in order to discourage women from bearing babies they can't support. She hopes this year to cut checks to able-bodied AFDC recipients sharply after two years.

At present, with welfare not yet reformed at the national level, she faces daunting obstacles. The State Legislature has balked repeatedly at enacting her proposals. The federal government has been slow to grant regulatory waivers that would allow the state to carry out those reforms that do get past the Legislature. And the courts have stalled reform by intervening on the side of welfare advocates. Yet each year Anderson and Wilson have reintroduced their programs, getting more through each time. "I play hardball," she says. "I love a good fight, if I think I've got any chance to win it."

Anderson's approach to welfare begins with the idea that society must decide where its obligations end. In her view, no able-bodied adult who has never worked—mothers included—should receive aid. "You can't take out of the pot until you contribute to the pot," she asserts. Anderson hopes to abolish AFDC, replacing it with something akin to unemployment insurance, and to move to foster care or group homes the children of parents who cannot or will not support them.

Anderson contends that AFDC, which New Deal reformers originally conceived as a program to support widows, has deprived poor men of a place in the family. "This program has systematically removed fathers from the home," Anderson maintains. "AFDC has created itself s the husband, and no poor man who makes the minimum wage can compete with it."

Echoing Charles Murray—she jokes that she's older than Murray, so he's echoing her—she contends that the AFDC check changed the conversation between men and women, robbing men of their historic family role as breadwinner. Fathers do not naturally abandon their children; what she has watched is women push men away because the government has become a better provider. "In poor families, what we have said is that you don't have to have the dad at the table. And that I think is a disaster, both for these families and for society."

As for teenage mothers, in her view they are not women but girls, and they should be with their mothers or in foster care but not on AFDC. Anderson is pushing hard this year to deny AFDC to these girls, for reasons that go right to the heart of why AFDC is so catastrophically destructive to children.

In the great welfare debate swirling through Washington and state capitals, the most potent argument against major cuts in AFDC is that children will suffer. Even among liberals, not much sympathy remains these days for non-working adults. But how can one not be moved by the plea that children should not be made to pay for the sins of their parents? The seeming moral force of this argument could prove strong enough to derail radical change in AFDC.

But with compelling logic, Anderson argues that this is AFDC's big lie. However compassionate its intent, sending checks to a teenage mother to set up her own apartment, Anderson argues, is deadly for both the teen and her child. There she becomes prey to the older men who father her additional children. And there her child depends for life and nurture on an American teenager, who remains perpetually immature through AFDC's extension of adolescence that leaves her, at 14, 15, 16—or even 25—literally irresponsible.

Anderson visited a home where the 18- and 14-year-old daughters of an unwed welfare mother were both pregnant. Although the 14-year-old had watched her older sister give birth, she declared that no such thing would happen to her. "This girl had no clue, even after watching it, what it was going to take to give birth, let alone to be a parent," Anderson recalls. "And we're going to let her have her own apartment, raise her kid. I will tell you, that outcome is going to be terrible."

Think, Anderson says, of a kid who wants a puppy. "You know the scenario. ‘I'm going to take care of it, Dad. Just give me the puppy. I really will be responsible.’ Three weeks into the puppy, the whole thing has worn off. It's old now, and they're onto something new. Who does the getting up in the morning and taking the dog out? Who feeds the dog? What do you think happens with a fragile little infant in a home with a teen?" It's hardly surprising, she says, that the children of welfare often end up as delinquents or welfare mothers themselves.

Boys, especially in neighborhoods devoid of working men, grow up thinking men have no importance in families. "When a black boy grows up and looks out, he doesn't see around him black males doing anything except hanging out on the street. He goes home, and he looks at his family, and he doesn't see black men doing anything. He goes to school, and he doesn't see black men doing anything. What do you think happens to the psyche of this child?"

Under such circumstances, it's almost impossible for a woman to raise a son. "She herself is not fully developed; she has not worked out her relationships with men in her household. What does she know about boys? What does she know about men? She creates a pariah, and then we wonder, where is this coming from?" Astronomical sums of taxpayer money are going into such families, and AFDC may be the least of it, compared to the costs of drug use, foster care, juvenile courts, and prisons.

Welfare is at first less crippling for girls because AFDC allows them to "become somebody through childbearing," says Anderson. "It gives them a sense of worth because a child makes them a woman"—even though it thwarts their every other potential.

But Anderson argues that in the long run, AFDC destroys girls too. A common scenario is multiple births in rapid succession, beginning as young as 13 or 14. By the time such AFDC mothers are 22 or 23, Anderson says, "they're absolutely overwhelmed, and their own development hasn't progressed." Their next move is onto alcohol and drugs, in an effort to recapture the childhood they lost to pregnancy. They fail to care for their children, "and we wind up having all those kids in our child abuse and child neglect system. And if they're not so bad that you can't get to them, we still wind up with their daughters becoming pregnant just like their moms, and their sons winding up in our juvenile delinquency system.

"I would suggest that AFDC is not the place to have teen parenting," Anderson argues. "Giving them a check is not the way to handle it." If a girl cannot stay at home because of abuse, Anderson would put her and her child together in the same foster family, or, if that is not possible, into a group home with intensive help from social workers. The government should encourage adoption and eliminate obstacles to trans-racial adoption. Anderson doubts such a plan would ultimately be more expensive than what the government is doing now, because children growing up in nurturing homes would be less prone to crime and dependency.

Not everyone agrees. State Senator Theresa Hughes, an Inglewood Democrat chairing a committee on teenage pregnancy, called Anderson's proposal to make teen mothers live at home "appalling." "It's the dysfunctional family that sometimes causes a teen to get pregnant because she's seeking the love she doesn't get at home," Hughes told the Los Angeles Times. "Some girls should be encouraged to leave, even if they've never thought of it. They should be given an opportunity to live on their own, to become real women and mothers." But Anderson is surely right that this is a guarantee of more dysfunctional families, and that group homes are a far preferable alternative.

In keeping with her belief that only workers deserve taxpayer help, the first major reform that Anderson undertook in California was to alter fundamentally the work incentives facing recipients. She reduced the check for a family of three from $694 a month to $594. By September she hopes to cut it again, to $547. Then she wants a "transition grant" that would automatically drop—to $465 after six months and $375 after two years—to encourage recipients to get off the rolls. Families would, however, continue to get Medicaid for a year and food stamps for as long as they are eligible under federal rules.

At the same time, she has restructured AFDC so that recipients can make up the cuts through work and a combination of child care subsidies and the federal earned-income tax credit. Before these changes, AFDC discouraged work by taking a dollar away in benefits for every dollar earned, destroying any incentive for part-time work. Now, part-time work at the minimum wage leaves a recipient better off. Those who go to work full-time are able to stay on the rolls and collect a reduced sum in AFDC and food stamps, so that work boosts income by several hundred dollars a month. A non-working mother of two on AFDC gets $1,131 a month in cash, food stamps, and Medicaid; if she takes a full-time job at the minimum wage, she ends up with $1,653, including Medicaid, AFDC, food stamps, and the earned-income tax credit. This is far from a perfect solution, though: it's hardly fair for welfare recipients to make more than minimum-wage workers who've never been on the dole.

Anderson also raised the savings limit for AFDC recipients to $2,000 in cash and $5,000 in a restricted account to buy a home, start a business, or go to college. Recipients also get help finding work through the California job training and placement program known as GAIN, which Anderson is trying to bolster by toughening sanctions for non-participation. From all these initiatives, the state projects savings this year of $100 million; in 22 months of the reforms, the share of recipients working part-time rose from 8 to 13 percent.

The emphasis is on minimum wage work, which Anderson wants to make respectable again. She rejects the widely held view that recipients need extensive training and education for higher-paying jobs in order to stay off welfare. Her life-tested, blue-collar belief is that work itself is a way to gain needed experience, knowledge, and self-discipline. Furthermore, for an unwed mother who has never worked and who probably dropped out of high school, a minimum wage job is a more reasonable goal than a $12-an-hour job. To train a completely inexperienced person for a higher-level job is too ambitious and therefore likely to fail, she believes.

Nor has she patience with the popular idea that there are not enough private-sector jobs. "I am amazed at how immigrants, illegal ones, find jobs—and how our regular folks can't find a job," Anderson says. In Midwestern cities, she recalls, "I watched work happen, and I watched work not happen. I watched us be in recession and not be in recession; but I watched people on AFDC not move. Even in good times, we were getting people on our caseloads. There's something else, beyond lack of jobs, going on." While vast numbers of women joined the workforce, "here we have a whole segment of women who think somebody's supposed to take care of them.

"If you tell me, ‘I'm pregnant, and I've never worked,’ I would say, ‘What is wrong with you? I mean, go talk to your family; go talk to his family. But don't come here, because having a baby is not a crisis. That's a condition, and your behavior caused that.’ But we go in there, and we say, ‘We're going to rescue you from your own stupid behavior.’ We need to stop that."

As for parents so irresponsible or incapacitated that they cannot support their children, Anderson asks, "What do we do with children now when a parent abuses and neglects them? If I have a parent, male or female, who tells me, ‘I am not willing to go to work and take care of my child,’ then I have to ask the question, ‘Should you be a parent?’ But we keep wanting to give folks money. I suggest that what we ought to be doing is questioning their responsibility."

Anderson argues that welfare advocates implicitly degrade those they claim to care about. The unspoken message behind the assertion that welfare recipients can't find jobs when immigrants easily find them, she says, is that recipients cannot compete with everyone else. Such attitudes, she contends, promote ugly racial stereotypes. The same dismissive implication underlies the advocates' nonjudgmental acceptance of out-of-wedlock childbearing. "We should say, ‘Hey, aren't you talking about black folks here, and aren't you saying that black folks can't control their sexual behavior? Aren't you saying that black folks aren't capable of supporting their kids?’, I mean, I will just take this and just wipe [advocates'] faces in it."

Similarly, Anderson regards as condescending the assumption, which some congressional critics of welfare reform hold, that abolishing AFDC would lead parents to abandon their children en masse, as if they cared nothing for them. But she takes equal umbrage at the view that the culture of dependency is irreversibly entrenched. "Now we're saying again that people don't have brains. You know, maybe it's my Christian upbringing," she says: "I was taught that a human animal had the intelligence to think things out—to make changes and to adapt—and the ability to have free will and choice. I don't buy that these people on AFDC can't do anything different from what they've been doing.

"These people are intelligent, and they make rational decisions, and they will make decisions that benefit them; and if having a child doesn't benefit them, they're not going to have kids," she insists. "If I have a daughter who gets pregnant, and I don't get any money for that kid, me and her are going to have a lot different conversation than we've been having in the past."

If, as Anderson hopes, the government abolishes AFDC, she concedes that the transition will not be easy. But she thinks it could occur faster than many expect. People are afraid of the idea of doing away with AFDC "because they've been told that if we do something different, the sky is going to fall," Anderson says. But to be paralyzed by fear of changing the system is to ignore the horrors it is causing now. "People are acting like it is a harmless system," she says. "But it does serious harm. We've got to do something different, because this is not working."

Anderson, divorced and now remarried, vows when she retires "to go back to Wisconsin and sit on my farm and do my fishing and canoeing. And hopefully my kids will decide to have grandchildren for me. I promised them that if they wait [to have kids] until I finish this task, I would do the daycare for them."

She has three children, "one every way you can have it": a foster daughter, an adopted daughter, and a biological son. "And if I would have stayed married to my first husband longer," she says, "I'd have probably had two or three more children. I love children; I absolutely adore children." That's what drives her as she works to transform the welfare system. "I think that children are our future," she says, "and we're crapping on `em big time."

 

 

 
With no illusions about her clients, California Social Services Director Eloise Anderson is instituting reforms that make sense.
City Journal Spring 1995.
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