Human services are having a difficult year — at both the state and federal levels. One reason, I think, is that the general public has only a vague idea of what human services are and why we need them.
New research shows that most Americans have a very narrow idea of the role of human services in society. The prevailing belief rests on the American ideals of individualism and upward mobility — that anyone can become anything if they work hard enough to attain it. Human services are largely perceived as charity for people who have not taken advantage of their opportunities, not worked hard enough and made poor decisions. In short, the belief is that it’s their own “fault” that they need help, and the more help we give them the more we encourage their dependence on it.
These beliefs provide a justification for many Americans not to support human services with their votes or dollars. The problem is that these assumptions are largely not correct. Even the premise that there are plenty of opportunities for upward mobility is uncertain — although the United States was once the world leader, now it ranks well down the list of developed countries in upward mobility.
The actual premise underlying human services is that as a society we value developing the potential of all citizens to attain social, mental and financial well-being, because this contributes to the strength of our communities and nation; it makes for a better workforce, a more robust economy, improved health, reduced costs for government and a richer culture.
Building such well-being requires supports at essentially every age in life. We all have needed such supports, which may have come from our families, schools, mentors and various life opportunities. But some people don’t have them, or have few of them, or have them only temporarily.
Well-being is built, much like a house is built, with different supports at different stages of construction. Infants and young children need a good foundation, and it is not their “fault” if they are denied supports that would help create it. Research indicates that poverty during infancy and early childhood is associated with increased stress on young children — it is difficult for a parent to attend to a child when absorbed by constant concerns about having a place to live, affording enough food to eat and arranging child care around a job requiring odd hours that pays the minimum wage.
Poverty is associated with a variety of stressors for infants and young children, and research now shows that those stressors are associated in some individuals with compromised brain development, poor self-control, lower school performance, reduced life accomplishments and higher rates of serious health problems throughout life — even when young children rise out of poverty during later childhood and adolescence.
Good house construction requires planning and many dedicated players — architects, electricians, plumbers, etc. Similarly, the delivery of human services requires social workers, medical doctors, psychologists, early-childhood care, teachers, visiting nurses, family-support professionals, early-intervention specialists and parent educators, among others, to provide a good foundation for young children who otherwise would have no such help.
Furthermore, research indicates that supports provided in early childhood prevent later problems and produce more financial return on investment to individuals and society than services delivered at any other point in the life span.
But the need for supports continues through life — and they can be provided either by families, employers and circumstances or by government or nonprofit assistance. For older children and adolescents, these include good schools, physical- and behavioral-health services, after-school programs, athletic and recreational opportunities, job training, etc.
Houses need maintenance and repairs as they age. Seniors benefit from programs that reduce social isolation and promote relationships, that provide transportation to grocery stores and medical appointments, that arrange for meals on wheels and so forth.
Yes, some human services do provide direct financial and health services to those in need. And yes, some recipients game the system. But not most.
There also are judges and legislators who take kickbacks, companies that violate regulations, physicians who cheat on Medicare and Medicaid billing, and citizens who falsify their tax returns. But not most.
Can human services be improved? Of course, and so can these other endeavors.
In addition, many direct services are not easily obtained, and the process of justifying the need for them can be quite extensive, onerous and demeaning. Most recipients of human services also do not stay financially eligible for long, but, because low-wage jobs tend to come and go, they may slip back into need occasionally.
With such a large percentage of our population living literally from paycheck to paycheck while having no high-tide money set aside for unexpected circumstances, this is understandable. Most people do not want to be in this situation. Visit a food kitchen or volunteer at a community service to provide coats for the winter — most of the people there will not fit the stereotype.
Think about how valuable all the supports you have had in your lifetime have been to you, both those that created a good foundation and those that helped in times of crisis. Human services are society’s way of making sure all citizens at all ages have adequate supports when their circumstances do not provide them, and society is better in every way because of them.
Human services need our understanding, our financial support and our votes.
Robert B. McCall is co-director of the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development and a professor of psychology. This essay is based in part upon research conducted by the FrameWorks Institute of Washington, D.C.
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