Lupe Anguiano: Helping women help themselves off the welfare roles

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Helping women lift themselves out of poverty and become self-sufficient and productive has been a continuing project of Lupe Anguiano of San Antonio, Texas. For her impressive success in assisting hundreds of women to leave welfare and prepare themselves to hold permanent jobs, Ms. Anguiano has received a 1983 President's Volunteer Award. She and 17 other outstanding volunteers were honored by President Reagan at White House ceremonies April 13.

In 1982, her work with and for poor women was also recognized, by the Wonder Woman Foundation in New York. In the category of ''Women Helping Women,'' she was awarded $7,500 to help further her efforts. The University of Texas has recognized her as an ''outstanding American woman of Mexican descent.''

Lupe Anguiano is a Mexican-American who was herself a member of a migrant family that left Colorado from May to December each year to help harvest fruit, vegetable, and nut crops in California. Despite the fact that all her school years were broken by this annual migration, she graduated from high school in Ventura, Calif., went on to junior college, and eventually earned a master's degree in administration and education from Antioch College.

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''My family worked hard,'' she said during an interview here. ''We lived mostly in tents while we were picking crops, but we preferred the hard work to handouts. We, like plenty of other poor people in this country, managed to retain our pride and our dignity. I can never remember a time when I did not work, and yet I cannot ever recall feeling deprived.''

Ms. Anguiano has taught, supported activist groups, and worked in Washington, D.C., for various government agencies, including the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. She has been a consultant to government agencies and has testified before state and national legislative bodies. After years of observing the Aid to Families with Dependent Children welfare program, she concluded that it was ignoring the most basic needs of women - to learn skills, find jobs, and contribute to society.

''I became angry at the way in which the system traps young, healthy, and intelligent women; makes them dependent on welfare; destroys their pride and their willingness to work; and keeps them living always under the poverty level, '' she says. ''I witnessed the lives of women slowly deteriorate as they got pregnant, got on welfare, and began to experience the dehumanizing and demeaning effects of a program that ignored these needs and, in the end, confused and demoralized them.''

Ms. Anguiano has traveled all over the United States in her study of the welfare system, sometimes living for months with welfare recipients. ''Most women hate being on welfare,'' she says with conviction. ''Yet they feel they have no options. I think they can be given options, but I found no politicians of either party that would even discuss the issue, because welfare has become so politicized.''

Ms. Anguiano left Washington 10 years ago, disillusioned and determined to test her own theories at a local level. She had found that women who wanted to be self-supporting cited a lack of job information, skills training, and problems of child care and transportation as their chief barriers.

Back in San Antonio, she founded an organization called National Women's Employment & Education Inc. and began to set up a model program that would remove these barriers and offer a bridge to a better life. She set up skills-training programs that were conducted by private-sector employers. She persuaded these and other employers to hire the women that she, and they, were helping to prepare.

She taught a three-week ''employment readiness'' class that included information on personal grooming, how to budget money, how to handle a job interview, how to set employment goals, and how to cope with everyday problems of the work world. She convinced women that the phrase ''upward mobility'' applied to them, too, and that they didn't have to stay at entry-level jobs, but could move up and earn more as they learned more.

The Alamo Kiwanis Club was the first organization to help her by donating funds to send a group of women to a continuing-education center for training for such traditional jobs as cashiers and nurses' aides. Later, the training opportunities expanded to include construction and other skills.

Within six months of founding her organization, she had led a ''Let's Get Off Welfare'' campaign. With the cooperation of the local business community, she had helped 500 women leave welfare and establish themselves in jobs of their own choosing. She set up emergency funds and provided guidance to help women work out child-care arrangements and transportation until they became stabilized in their jobs. She provided constant encouragement and moral support to those women who had been abandoned, widowed, divorced, or were unwed mothers.

One of these grateful women later commented: ''Its like Lupe Anguiano put down a ladder and, with her help, I climbed out of the hole I was in. She has helped so many of us to pull through.''

Later she helped establish other successful programs, based on her San Antonio model, in Denver; Tacoma, Wash.; Dallas and El Paso, Texas; Tempe, Ariz.; and Ventura, Calif. She is now in New York City to set up a three-part program for the Bronx, Harlem, and Brooklyn.

Eventually she would like to see the programs in these various cities funded by the welfare system itself, not only as a help to women but as a savings to taxpayers. Her organization is now operating with grants from such sponsors as Exxon, Atlantic Richfield Foundation, Dayton-Hudson stores, and Pacific and Southwest Telephone.

It has been an uphill climb for Lupe Anguiano, and sometimes her missionary zeal gets dampened. On such occasions she revives her energies by remembering ''what has really kept me going: seeing the lives of women change as they become self-respecting, productive members of society. Then I know it has been worth it.''

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