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The Grid 

Wednesday, Jan 15 1997
Brother Can You Spare a Dime?
Shortly after taking the helm of S.F.'s Department of Human Services last June, Michael Wald made what seemed to him a simple request. Front-line workers were to use a courtesy title of Mr. or Ms. when speaking to welfare recipients. A practical message about dignity and respect, the directive nonetheless took awhile to sink in, which baffled the 55-year-old law professor on leave from Stanford University.

"He expressed real frustration," says one longtime social service staffer. "I don't think he understands organizational behavior, how an organization accepts information and acts on it, what it takes to make a bureaucracy change course."

OK, so Wald had some trouble remembering that ideas take time to become realities. But just as problematic, this veteran of the department adds, the academic-turned-bureaucrat had trouble communicating those ideas to his management team. "More often than not, program managers were looking at him with a sense of befuddlement. People would leave meetings not knowing what he said."

So why has S.F. Mayor Willie Brown just named Wald to an untitled post in charge of remaking local welfare policy? That promotion hands Wald the awesome responsibility of managing the city's response to the shock therapy of federal welfare reform. The move recognizes that Wald, who spent the past three years in Washington reviewing state welfare experiments and literally wrote California's child-welfare law, was intellectually outsized for the job of city bureaucrat. Brown's bet is that Wald's experience and mien better suit him for big thinking rather than tinkering.

"I worked with him in Washington, and I can say without ambiguity he was the most thoughtful and professional person I dealt with," says David Elwood, who was President Clinton's welfare-reform guru until the Republicans stormed Capitol Hill. "He's very smart and fair, and has deeply held values and a passion for the public interest. I truly loved working with him. He was completely loved and admired."

When Brown freed Wald from the cogs and wheels of the Human Services Department, S.F.'s newly renamed social service agency, by making him his special adviser, he handed Wald the toughest job in town -- and morally, if not politically, the most important in 1997. If S.F. fails to develop a coordinated response to the new time limits on federal welfare, the implications will be more than merely academic. The consequences will be measured in homelessness, crime, and the grim specter of child neglect.

"I find it extraordinarily challenging and certainly anxiety-producing," Wald said during the few minutes of phone chat that his busy schedule allowed last week. "At the local level, you feel the potential negative impacts and a sense of personal responsibility, far more so than when you are doing policy many steps removed."

It's good the professor understands that he still faces a steep learning curve. And where his administrative skills failed him for six months at the city's Human Services Department, it is now his political instincts that will be sorely tested. The only hope is to lash together autonomous department heads, irascible advocates, and an ambivalent business community to keep the poor fed and housed -- all the while readying the downtrodden for leaving welfare to find meaningful employment.

"It is difficult in any jurisdiction to coordinate programs, funding, and groups," Wald said. "I think it is a big task. And getting things to happen is a part of what I need to do."

Problem is, Wald has never had to dirty his hands in the turf battles of urban poverty politics.

He spent his life in the courtroom, in the upper echelons of the academy, and, when he's been engaged in government policy, only at the highest levels -- the California Legislature and the White House.

In 1981, as a hired expert, he wrote the state's principal child-welfare law, which established the legal priority of reuniting neglected children with their parents. He served as a board member of the Youth Law Center in S.F. from 1985 to 1993, a period during which the advocacy group sued the city over deplorable conditions at Juvenile Hall. And in 1993, Wald landed the job that makes him so valuable to Brown today: He joined a pilgrimage of liberal lawyers and academics who marched to Washington to help the Clinton administration "end welfare as we know it."

As deputy general counsel at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Wald was among the officials responsible for reviewing all state applications for waivers from federal welfare laws. States were required to receive such waivers before being allowed to tamper with welfare entitlements in the name of reform. But when Clinton failed to pass his welfare bill in 1994 and the congressional Republicans seized the issue, Wald joined those same liberal lawyers and academics in what would become an exodus out of Washington.

"I had the sense that he left because he felt there might be an opportunity to inform the debate from the outside," says another high-ranking Clintonite from Health and Human Services who also abandoned ship.

But rather than informing debate, Wald is now stuck wrestling the reform monster that he and his disappointed reformers unwittingly helped create.

The face of the monster is still fuzzy. However, S.F. can count on one certainty. The rolls of its county-funded General Assistance program, the cash assistance of last resort, will swell -- perhaps exponentially -- as federally funded forms of welfare end for recipients beginning in two years. Worse, if, as Gov. Wilson has proposed, counties are freed from their legal obligation to offer General Assistance, S.F. could experience a new refugee population of recipients cut off the county-paid dole elsewhere.

"This will be a real test of the magnet theory," says one manager at the Human Services Department.

Also to be tested is Wald's ability to bridge that chasm between people and policy. Some are skeptical.

"I would like to take Michael for a week and sit him in some of the housing projects and shelters we work in and shadow about seven different mothers on welfare, and expect him to then value those lives and learn from them," says Malika Saada Saar, director of the nonprofit Family Dignity Project.

Saada Saar faults Wald for defending a program begun by his predecessor titled the Express to Success Center. She calls it "shallow and infantilizing." One session she derides began with all participants sharing their names. If each person correctly remembered all the names that preceded them, they were rewarded with a candy bar. Next, a motivational speaker introduced the women to the popular childhood toy the Slinky and told them it was the brainchild of a woman mired in poverty who drew on her innovative instincts to become a millionaire. Finally, the women were issued a phone and a copy of the Yellow Pages and told to let their fingers find them a job.

"His academic background disconnects him from the life of these people," Saada Saar adds. "He is very adept at quoting studies and crafting them to meet his arguments, but he needs to connect them with real life."

That's a harsh review for a guy uniformly revered by his peers as a "legendary" theorist on child-welfare matters, "masterfully knowledgeable" on the nuances of governmental poverty policies, and intellectually "brilliant."

But none of that will matter as much as political acumen when contending with advocates like Saada Saar and turf-conscious heads of city departments.

"It's important, sure," says Kimiko Burton, director of the Mayor's Criminal Justice Council, referring to the need for a political sense. "Michael Wald is smart enough to know when he needs help -- and who to ask." (She oughta know, being the daughter of Mayor Brown's longest-standing political ally, state Sen. John Burton.)

Thus far, Wald has been busy delaying the pain of welfare reform. In September, for example, he insisted on continuing child-welfare services to illegal immigrants, even after the governor issued an executive order calling for their elimination in compliance with federal welfare reform.

Similarly, Wald pushed the city to launch a citizenship drive to preserve benefits for immigrants. And his Human Services Department continued to accept food stamp applications from immigrants, despite other counties reading the new federal law as requiring a cutoff. Finally, he assembled an unwieldy 134-member Welfare Reform Task Force under the Mayor's Office, which includes everybody from muffin kingpin Elliot Hoffman, owner of Just Desserts, to Christopher X, head of the Nation of Islam's Mosque 26. The task force plans on delivering an action plan, crafted under Wald's tutelage.

It is here where, as Wald put it, he will have to start "getting things to happen." And, whether he's admitted it to himself or not, he will have to do one more thing he's been unaccustomed to: Given the grim realities of the new federal law, at a certain point, Michael Wald will have to say no to the poor.

George Cothran ( and Chuck Finnie ( welcome tips, suggestions, and innuendo. Complaints, however, can be sent to SF Weekly, Attn: The Grid, 425 Brannan, San Francisco,

About The Authors

George Cothran


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