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It's good news from the frontline on welfare reform, according to UC Berkeley-led study of 9 counties
13 Nov 2000

By Pat McBroom, Media Relations

Berkeley - Welfare reform has opened the door to innovation at the local level and is transforming a rule-bound bureaucracy into something much more flexible, according to a nine-county report by researchers at the School of Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley.

The report provides the first glimpse into how county social services agencies in the greater Bay Area have implemented the1996 federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.

The news is "very positive, so positive that the big question is: How do we continue this trend?" said Michael J. Austin, UC Berkeley professor of social welfare and staff director of the Bay Area Social Services Consortium (BASSC), which carried out the study.

"We were worried about what states would do with their newfound authority over welfare, delegated by the federal law. We thought welfare reform might create more problems than it solved, but we have been pleasantly surprised in California," said Austin.

He said that the state's welfare reform legislation (CalWORKS), which followed the federal act, empowered counties to begin reforming the system, and most counties have done exactly that.

The tool they used was incentive funding - new, more flexible money that freed up counties to address complex problems at the local level in such areas as transportation, family supports, job programs and childcare.

"Incentive funding created an environment for change and innovation," said Austin. "As a result, we are seeing a major transformation in the processes and culture of social service agencies."

He said the old welfare system was overly regulated, isolated from communities and focused on determining who was eligible for aid. The new, county-based system is comprised of more open partnerships with community services, many of which use the energies of gifted local leaders.

The report does not, however, directly assess the impact on families and children of welfare reform, which has been cushioned by good economic times.

"We are very concerned about whether welfare recipients are being trapped in entry level, minimum wage jobs," said Austin. He added that the impact of welfare-to-work reforms on their children is still very unclear.

The 20-case study BASSC report edited by Austin, "Innovative Programs and Practices emerging from the Implementation of Welfare Reform," is now being forwarded to county administrators.

Some of the outstanding programs identified in the report are:

Adopt A Family (San Mateo County) This program links middle-class families with low income families for one year to exchange visits and give personalized help with anything from hand-me-down clothes for the kids to buying food in bulk with a Costco membership card. One family helped a mother buy a used car without being swindled. About 100 family pairs have been enrolled so far, with more planned. They are matched with each other by county staff.

Napa Valley Coalition of Non-profit Agencies (Napa County) Napa County has accomplished an almost unprecedented feat, said Austin, in bringing together more than 30 non-profit and governmental agencies to create a seamless program of crisis centers, support services, psychological counseling, youth therapy, school-based programs and in-home services.

"This is nothing short of astounding in my business," said Austin, about building a workable coalition with so many formerly competitive agencies.

The coalition recently won a $2 million foundation grant from the California Endowment for its multiservice Front Porch program, a 24-hour walk-in crisis center.

Job Keeper Hotline (Santa Clara County) This unusual 24-hour hotline helps CalWORKS recipients maintain employment by linking them up with a wide range of social services. In its second year of operation, it receives some 70 calls per month regarding childcare, training and education, transportation, job search/resume service, legal services and more. While most hotlines have dealt with psychological crises such as domestic violence or suicide, this is one of a few that helps with work-related issues.

Connections Shuttle (Santa Cruz County) To fill in gaps left by an inadequate public transportation system, this county program expanded its paratransit van program for the elderly and disabled to include welfare recipients. A small fleet ferries people to and from work, including stops for childcare and groceries. A temporary program to help recipients in the transition from welfare to work, the shuttles provided 165,000 rides in one year, a testimony to the need for better public transportation. They also train recipients to be drivers. One woman now drives an 18-wheel truck for a living; others drive local buses, some of which have changed hours and routes to accommodate CalWORKS recipients.

Neighborhood Jobs Pilot Initiative (NJPI) (Alameda County) One-stop job centers in three neighborhoods in West Oakland, East Oakland and South Hayward help people find employment. They are particularly effective in responding to the ethnic, multilingual communities, according to the BASSC research. Funded by a combination of public and private money, with help from the Rockefeller Foundation, the centers also draw on resources from local colleges. They are located in the following community organizations: the Institute for Success in South Hayward, the Prescott Resource Center in Prescott and the Unity Council in Lower San Antonio/Fruitvale.

"In the Bay Area, we are finding new ways to help the poor achieve self-sufficiency," said Austin. "The new welfare-to-work approach is involving the entire community and, in that area, we seem to be breaking new ground."