Robert B. Carleson: Full Biography

Robert B. Carleson devoted his life to public service. While reforming the California welfare system in the early 1970’s under Ronald Reagan, Carleson pioneered reform measures that saved that state from bankruptcy and that 25 years later would bring about the greatest change for good in America’s system of helping its neediest citizens since the 1930’s.

Bob Carleson was a native Southern Californian, born in Long Beach in 1931. In his youth he was an avid stamp collector and Boy Scout, beginning as a Cub Scout at age 9, ultimately becoming an Eagle Scout and reaching the top rank of Quartermaster Sea Scout at the age of 18. He was Lieutenant Governor of California Boy’s State in 1948 and named outstanding Sea Scout of Long Beach in 1949. In that same year he received naval scholarships to the University of Utah and the University of Southern California (USC), receiving his degree in public administration from USC and a commission in the U.S. Navy in 1953.

For the next three years he served in the Far East and Korea, including two years with the First Marine Division in Korea and a one-year tour on the heavy cruiser U. S. S. Bremerton, which included combat in Korea. Following his naval service, he did post graduate work in public administration at USC and got his first job as an administrative intern with the City of Beverly Hills. During the course of his local government career he was awarded the 1958-59 Harry F. Scoville Award to the outstanding public administrator under the age of 31. Bob’s rich career in public administration culminated in his becoming city manager of the Los Angeles county cities of San Dimas and Pico Rivera.

Bob joined the administration of Governor Ronald Reagan as Chief Deputy Director of the California State Department of Public Works in 1968. He was noticed quickly and was drafted by the Governor to become the chief architect of his successful welfare reform program and became its principal implementer as Director of the California State Department of Social Welfare in 1971-72.

As a result of the success of California’s reforms, Bob was brought to Washington in 1973 to be U. S. Commissioner of Welfare with instructions to carry California-style welfare reforms to the States. Bob’s efforts resulted in the national welfare rolls dropping for the first time since World War II as they had done in California during his tenure there.

Bob was at the Governor’s side the one time Reagan testified about welfare reform on Capitol Hill. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Russell B. Long was so impressed that he asked the Governor if he could “borrow” Bob for advice on welfare legislation. This began a long professional relationship from 1972 until Long’s retirement and a personal friendship that lasted until Long’s death.

Bob left the federal government in 1975 and founded his own management and public policy consulting firm with offices in Sacramento and Washington, DC. He continued his work with Chairman Long and during the Carter Administration successfully beat back efforts to liberalize welfare policy.

Bob was a true believer in Ronald Reagan and served as a senior policy advisor to him in his 1976 and 1980 presidential campaigns. Following the 1980 election, he headed the Transition Team at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Bob was quickly appointed to the White House staff as Special Assistant to the President for Policy Development where he served as a special advisor on federalism policy and Executive Secretary of the Cabinet Council on Human Resources. He authored the 1981 Reagan Welfare Reforms which once implemented caused the national welfare rolls to drop once again.

Bob left the White House in 1984 to join the international accounting and management consulting firm of KMG Main Hurdman as Principal and Director of Government Relations, where he pioneered the firm’s government relations practice. He also served for many years as a member of the Board of Directors of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta.

In the early 1990’s Bob and his wife Susan left Washington and moved to San Diego. But welfare reform was still his top priority and in 1994 when President Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it,” Bob knew what he meant and took up the battle once again. The Free Congress Foundation brought him in as a Senior Fellow and Bob worked feverishly to advocate the right approach to reforming welfare by reversing the incentives in the system. When the Republicans gained control of Congress that year Bob saw the opportunity of achieving his and Ronald Reagan’s long held dream of replacing the open-ended welfare entitlement program AFDC with finite block grants to the states.

President Clinton twice vetoed the legislation and while many Republicans wanted to keep the issue alive during the 1996 presidential campaign, Bob single handedly fought to get it sent back to the President for a third time. It worked—President Clinton signed it into law in August 1996 and a decade later the nation’s welfare rolls had dropped by 60 percent and the legislation stands as the most significant welfare reform since 1935. Ronald Reagan always said there is no end to what you can accomplish as long as you don’t care who gets the credit and Bob believed that, too.

In 1998, Bob founded the American Civil Rights Union (ACRU), a vehicle to protect the civil rights of all Americans – rights that are being undermined by the left-wing and anti-family agenda of organizations like the ACLU. His mission lives on and will continue to do so.

Bob was for years listed in Marquis Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in the World. His articles were published in The Wall Street Journal, Readers’ Digest, The Washington Times, and various other publications, for one of which he received a Freedoms Foundation award.

Government Is the Problem, Memoirs of Ronald Reagan’s Welfare Reformer is available at

Read more celebrating Robert Carleson’s mission and accomplishments.

Meet the ACRU Board of Directors →