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Cultural Revolution

Yolanda Rinaldo
Christopher Gardner

Working Girl: Yolanda Rinaldo shook up the status quo at the county's welfare agency long before the word came down from Sacramento.

Santa Clara County's welfare caseworkers are already ahead of the curve on reforming their agency

By Michael Learmonth

Soon after Yolanda Rinaldo took over the reigns of the Santa Clara County Social Services Agency 16 months ago, she addressed a community meeting on welfare reform.

"How many of you think welfare works today?" she asked the group of 300, which included her new staff, members of the nonprofit community and local politicians. Not a single hand was raised.

The response reflected a degree of candor usually reserved for private conversations between social workers.

"Most of us have always had complaints about 'the system,' Rinaldo explains. "And it was not what politicians say about welfare recipients being lazy. These were down-to-earth complaints about the system--how bureaucratic it is, how it raises a lot of barriers, how it traps people in the system."

The social workers had listened to politicians beat each other with "welfare reform" rhetoric for the better part of three years. As they listened to conservatives in Congress grandstand on drastic cuts, they feared for the people they were trying to help--and for their own jobs.

However, many found themselves in the awkward position of defending a system they knew wasn't getting the job done. They felt attacked by the punative nature of the debate in Washington and resisted change for fear that deep cuts disguised as "welfare reform" would become law.

"That's what they were afraid of; that's what all of us were afraid of," Rinaldo says. "We needed to get beyond the fear of welfare reform to get on a positive track."

Four months after Rinaldo's welcome speech, President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, confiming many of the social workers' worst fears.

Today, a year later, welfare reform has finally been enacted in California following an extended battle between Governor Wilson and the Legislature over how much the state will spend to cover some of the federal cuts in benefits.

But while preparing for the sky to fall, something interesting happened at the Social Services Agency. Even before welfare reform got to California, the system began to reform itself.

New Job Descriptions

Hector Garza runs the Santa Clara County Social Services Agency office on Las Plumas Avenue in East San Jose. In the past, the case managers who worked in his office had two directives: Determine accurately who is eligible for welfare benefits, and process applications quickly.

Now, everyone in the office, from the receptionists to the benefits assessors, has a new job description: Help people find work.

"Eligibility workers by and large have not been in the business of helping clients find jobs," Garza says. "Our new director has been sending that message ever since she got here--that we need to do things differently."

The waiting room, once a barren place with white walls and hard plastic chairs, now has a fresh coat of paint ("Cloud-Nine Blue") and bulletin boards with hundreds of job listings--from a $5.50-per-hour cashier to a $15-per-hour administrative assistant.

After a new electrical outlet is installed, Garza intends to equip the lobby with an Internet-capable computer so applicants can access job listings on the Web. Even the mousepad has a motivational message: "Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference."

The clients are encouraged at every level to take advantage of these resources. When someone seems idle in the waiting room, a receptionist ventures out from behind the plexiglass to direct her to the job listings. But mostly people don't need to be encouraged.

"People not on aid are coming in to look at the resources," Garza boasts.

Manuel Montano, an eligibility worker, tells a story of a 48-year-old banker who was laid off after 20 years of continuous employment. The man was suffering from severe depression in the face of his midlife career change. At one time, Montano would have evaluated the man's economic condition and simply determined if he was eligible. Now, after the evaluation, Montano walked him over to the GAIN offices--the state's employment training and referral program--and helped the man locate three job prospects.

"Without welfare reform, we should have been doing this," says Julie Aragon. "When things change, people look for a way to adapt and be a part of the change."

Back-To-Workspace

The East Valley District Office staff renovated and decorated the lobby on its own time. Some came in on a Saturday to paint, decorate and hang bulletin boards. Director Garza pitched in paint rollers from home.

When the renovations were finished, they took second place among the seven district offices in a contest for the best lobby. The Mission City office took first "on a technicality," Garza chides.

The competition pleases Rinaldo--who hopes to cultivate an entrepreneurial atmosphere in what was a stale bureaucracy. The fear of change, she says, can be productive.

"Unfortunately, to set up an environment where you are encouraging creativity and change, the only way to get there is you have to be a little uncomfortable," she says. "Discomfort really does force us to look at things differently. The trick is to balance it so [employees] are not paralyzed."

In her effort to change the culture of her agency, Rinaldo is hoping for some help from Sacramento. As much as she dislikes the welfare bill passed last year, she says that one positive effect could be that counties may get more flexibility in how the new federal block grants, called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, will be spent.

Rather than forcing her to simply implement a system mandated from above, flexibility would play nicely into her entrepreneurial approach.

No statewide system, for example, should treat Santa Clara County, with 3 percent unemployment, in the same way it addresses Merced, which has 17 percent unemployment. The problem in Silicon Valley is underemployment. Twenty-five percent of those receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children actually have jobs but don't make enough to clear the poverty line of $12,154 for a family of three.

But even if counties are given flexibility, block grant funds come with some stiff new rules that will cause some pain locally. Next month more than 15,414 legal immigrants, including 4,500 children, will be cut off from food stamps in Santa Clara County. Congress extended Supplemental Security Income for elderly and disabled immigrants through Sept. 30, but after that there is no guarantee.

"There is the possibility that this social experiment may not work or may push more families into poverty," Rinaldo says.

One certainty is that in a time of welfare cuts, Rinaldo will have to rely more on the ingenuity of her staff than on money from Washington and Sacramento. But money is just part of the picture.

"Money by itself has never solved problems," Rinaldo says, "it just masks them."

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From the July 31-Aug. 6, 1997 issue of Metro.

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