The Grid

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.

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