A woman ahead of her time

SAN DIEGO — SAN DIEGO -- Obviously, the most important African-American man in public office is a conservative -- Justice Clarence Thomas. Less obviously, but surely, the most important African-American woman in public office is a conservative.

Meet Eloise Anderson, director of California's Department of Social Services, a $16 billion agency in this state where one-eighth of all Americans live, where one-third of all births are illegitimate and where until now 12 percent of the population accounted for 27 percent of the nation's spending on Aid to Families with Dependent Children.


Ms. Anderson says this about the end of that federal entitlement to welfare: "People say, 'The poor won't know what to do!' Tough. They'll learn." She adds, "When I was young, people did not think the poor were stupid." But, then, when she was young her grandfather was appalled not just by the idea of government provision of health care, but even by employer provision. That seemed to him redolent of the paternalism practiced by "good" slave owners.

It took just a stroke of a pen -- the president's -- to transform Ms. Anderson from someone supposedly on the far right fringe of the social policy debate into someone who had been prematurely correct about where the debate was going. President Clinton signed Congress' repeal of a 60-year-old federal AFDC entitlement because he had been dragged to where she had been standing for years.


Launching a crusade

She is 54, her short hair is flecked with gray, and her speech is salted with a bracing bluntness, as when she recounts how she got into government 24 years ago. Born on the edge of poverty in Toledo, she became a social worker in Wisconsin and became incensed by the disconnection between the rules cranked out by the state welfare bureaucracy in Madison and the lives led by the people she struggled to help in Milwaukee.

So she drove to Madison, parked outside the state welfare office and began bombarding the people who worked there with questions: What do you do? Ever worked anywhere else? Ever been to Milwaukee? Soon she was working on Gov. Tommy Thompson's welfare reforms, which got her interviewed on public television, where California's Gov. Pete Wilson spotted her.

She became a national figure because of 15 minutes on "60 Minutes," during which Leslie Stahl asked her, "Will you not concede that you have a large number of unemployable people who are on welfare?" Ms. Anderson conceded nothing of the sort, saying there were lots of low-paying jobs that immigrants take but welfare recipients refuse.

Ms. Stahl: "But we're talking about sweeping floors."

Ms. Anderson: "That's employable."

Sentimental she is not. To the Manhattan Institute's City Journal she has said: "If you tell me, 'I'm pregnant, and I've never worked,' I would say, '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.'"

Why the explosive growth of illegitimacy? People live up or down to expectations: "It was accepted. Back in the 1960s, middle-class whites took the shame out of a lot of stuff." And there also was "the feminist thing -- men are dogs, we can live without them."


For many young girls, she says, the first sexual relationship is involuntary. When the daughter born to a teen-age mother becomes a teen-ager, she is apt to meet the male friends of her mother's man -- men in their late 20s or early 30s. And so illegitimacy is transmitted. Dismantle the welfare system, Ms. Anderson says, and young women will think differently about men and getting pregnant. We shall see.

"Maybe my time has come and gone," she says. Actually it is just arriving. Given the devolution of federal welfare responsibilities to the states, this is exactly the time for her to be where she is, doing two things.

One is putting in place measures to direct welfare recipients to work, thereby underscoring the transitional nature of welfare. The other is exhorting the poor, and particularly the African-American poor, to "get off the plantation" -- the intellectual plantation of conventional liberalism, and the closed world of dependency she thinks it produces.

On her way to the mainstream -- make that, while waiting for the mainstream to come to her -- she has felt the full fury of liberal intolerance of deviations by African-Americans. "It is," she muses, "scary getting off the plantation." She has been sustained, she says, by the example of someone who, like her, rose from near poverty and left that plantation: Clarence Thomas.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/28/96