Building resilience in Orange County — one family at a time
Maria Waziri has been helping Californians in Orange County get back to work for 14 years now. Ask her about her job and she'll tell you she is still a TANF case manager at heart. But what she really does is build community resilience – one family at a time.
Since starting in 2008, Waziri, the director for Maximus’ Orange County CalWORKs project, has gone from providing financial aid to recipients and telling them to look for work – any work – to helping them overcome barriers to finding and keeping long-term, well-paying jobs.
“Our goal is to get our participants to self-sufficiency," Waziri said. "We are providing more and more support in different areas, taking a much more holistic approach." That means relationship building, talking with participants to see what kind of jobs they want to pursue, whether they need education or job search readiness, and what holds them back.
Waziri's team of 73 dedicated individuals works alongside county case managers to manage the needs of about 2,000 CalWORKs participants. Maximus has operated the program, which serves four diverse areas throughout Orange County, since 1994 – making this contract our longest-running.
The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic was a wake-up call for state and local governments everywhere. In Orange County, the effect of COVID led to:
- A broader spectrum of the workforce – including white-collar workers and entrepreneurs – seeking benefits and initially less work opportunities than ever before
- A demand for more varied, long-term work opportunities that matched worker skills to position requirements
- The suspension of CalWORKs work requirements, making it more difficult to engage with participants and guide them in their job search
- An awareness that getting and keeping a job depends on more than willingness. It means removing more complex barriers that make it difficult to work
While COVID-19 triggered an unprecedented level of need, it also provided an opportunity for the government to be ready for the future.
Resilience is the ability to adapt well in the face of adversity long term. It requires investing in people and communities, anticipating needs, and creating systems that are flexible, adaptable, and scalable.
With the help of Maximus, CalWORKs has been steadily increasing efficiency and capacity, and transforming its approach to health and human services. Actions include:
- Focusing on engagement and building self-reliance for the long term
- Addressing participant needs holistically, including family and life circumstances
- Connecting individuals and families to wrap-around services such as childcare, counseling, mental health services, and job preparation
- Offering education and training for career growth, including up to five years in a degree program, and
- Acting on participant requests to improve technology and process applications more quickly
Additional funds from the American Rescue Plan enabled California to direct more resources toward engaging participants, assessing their needs, and connecting them to wrap-around services. Case managers went into the community, checked in with participants once a week instead of monthly, and listened to them to determine what would help them get back to the workforce and stay there. Their efforts have generated a 62 percent re-engagement rate.
Case managers began conducting in-depth assessments three or four years ago to help people identify and overcome barriers to getting long-term work. Questions range from: "What’s your work history?" to “Do you have childcare?" to those around executive functioning skills such as "Do you know how to balance your checkbook?"
The assessment process takes longer, but it is leading to more meaningful, full-fledged participation and generating higher job retention rates. Since implementation, rates in both areas have steadily increased. At the same time, new technology such as the potential use of artificial intelligence will make it possible to provide services more quickly. For example, one such initiative has the potential to reduce the program eligibility process from 30 days to 1.
Like anything, success depends on multiple factors. In Orange County, it came down to recognizing:
- Barriers to employment that job seekers couldn't overcome without help, such as no transportation, unaffordable childcare, and language issues
- A real shift in the job market and work interests
- The importance of a holistic approach with wrap-around services
- The value of education and skills training to match worker capability to employer need
- Jobs paying a living wage lead to greater stability and long-term employment
Since COVID, Waziri has seen real interest from people wanting to pursue positions such as a teacher assistant, a nurse, or a phlebotomist. Her office has worked to connect them with the education they need, whether a community college program or a certificate course. She has also seen small business owners looking to transition to bigger brands.
How we did it
- Focusing on education and training as a key driver of economic mobility
- Conducting extensive community outreach to engage a workforce in transition
- Helping participants secure jobs paying 20% above minimum wage as a path to financial independence
- Using in-depth assessments to match worker skills and interests with jobs to increase stability and upward mobility
- Connecting participants to wrap-around services as part of a holistic family approach designed to remove barriers to long-term employment
The Maximus difference
Many Maximus case managers are former participants who bring lived experience to the table. They can empathize and talk to participants about having once been in their shoes and how the program helped them.
For Cassandra Collins, the program was a lifeline. Almost a decade ago, she turned to Waziri’s office to escape from domestic violence. She feared for her life and her daughter’s. The team connected her to domestic abuse temporary housing and made certain she was protected. A year later, Maximus hired her on as an office assistant. Collins is now a quality assurance and performance manager and has a bright future in front of her.
When Wazari graduated from UCLA in 2008, she knew she wanted to help people. She continues to do this work for the same reason: the people. "There’s still so much work to be done; so many families are in need," Waziri said. "My own family were refugees at one point and they received the services that we provide today."
That is the kind of resilience she wants for all her program participants.