Whose job is it to help?

When I decided some 15-16 years ago I wanted to work in the social services sector, I was still a pretty idealistic 20-something year old. Granted my own path had been rocky, after all I was married at 18, a mum by 19 and headed towards divorce court by 20 but in that idealistic way that is a defining trait of the very young, I thought it would be great to help others. Sure, the pay sucked and I actually left the beginnings of a career that most certainly would have been far more lucrative but being someone who does good in the world at a very basic level was very important to me.

My first gig in the helping realm was actually as an Americorp Vista, serving as a community organizer to an area on the far north side of Chicago where noon day shootings across the street from the office were the norm. That agency in many ways was very similar to the agency I now serve as Executive Director, an agency that offered a wide array of services to locals and did a lot of good in the lives of the people it impacted. For the first time in my working life and considering I started working at 14, I had some experiences under my belt, I felt alive in my work. Sure the local gang bangers were none too pleased about the work we were doing and I admit I often sprinted from the office to the el station, as it was not an area for leisurely strolls. My love of being in the helping profession was cemented.

Over the years, I have worked with all types of people though the bulk of my work has been spent dealing with homelessness , but pretty much there is not a population that I haven’t served either through direct service or as an administrator. But I am about to tell you a secret that most in the social service/human services realm know all too well. You get burnt out and this work makes you look at people in a very hard light. For all the great individuals you serve, there are many others that make you wonder why?

Often times people think of social workers and other related allied professionals as being open minded and liberal, after all we serve people in the need. Yet over the years, I have seen more and more colleagues become rather conservative politically, generally settling down and ending up as Republican lites or Libertarians. It’s a secret we don’t share but really it’s the work that changes us.

Recently both online and offline I have ended up in discussions where people outside the profession have shared with me that they feel the government should do more to help people. For some reason I have been stuck on the thought what more should the government do to help people, better yet what is the government’s role in helping its citizens. Look, I am hardly a bootstrapper; I have freely admitted on this blog that in my early adult years, I needed assistance to live. I was thankful for that help at the same time hating it and glad to be done with it. A few years ago, when our income nosedived we needed medical help as mini me needed some health issues addressed. I swallowed my pride and applied for state healthcare, I am thankful that we were able to address both our health issues thanks to that help. I no longer receive it as I no longer qualify and actually have no insurance coverage at present. Since a real policy that actually covers things starts at well over a thousand bucks a month here and past experience with high deductible policies is that they really aren’t worth shit when you are paying out $400 a month yet still have to pay for all your care until you hit that deductible which never happened. So I am praying and gambling when it comes to healthcare and hoping Obamacare gives me some real options I can afford.

There is a place and time for government assistance , but the longer I work in my profession I often wonder what about the role of people to make responsible choices? A few days ago, I ran into a former client, she just had a new baby and we were making small talk about my agency which many locals are starting to realize is in economic distress like many non-profits, these days. Somehow in the course of this casual conversation, my former client mentioned her age and I was blown away, all this time I assumed her to be close to my age and was stunned to learn she was only 28! Our conversation ended and I was struck by the fact that had I made different choices I could have been her, 28 with 4 kids and very little money. The fact that my first marriage was a disaster and a disaster early on is probably the biggest reason I am not my former client. That coupled with the fact that government assistance while helpful was so meager that even as a youngster I realized that working was far more beneficial financially that receiving assistance.

I think for many in social services where our delight at serving others turns is when we see people who could make better choices, not make them because they believe social safety nets either through government or local non-profits will always be there to assist. Yet those of us in my field have seen our resources stretched beyond belief and frankly as an administrator, I find myself making logical choices that years ago I never would have considered possible.

Let me make it clear, I am not saying roll up the assistance. In fact there are certain areas where I feel the government should be involved, like healthcare. I think healthcare needs to be handled by the government or heavily regulated so that access is just that accessible. Right now what one gets varies so drastically by state and while I know Obamacare will make things better, I fear it won’t be enough.

Food and shelter, I think everyone must have access to food, but are SNAP benefits the best for all? In some areas, I could see some type of government ran cafeterias where people can go and eat, shit this might even create a few jobs and feed people. Now I admit shelter is a tricky one, right now we have a plethora of programs through HUD and while it can take years to get assistance most commonly through Section 8 housing programs. I admit the fact that one can live in their Section 8 pad forever is one I have always felt conflicted about. One of the reasons waiting lists are so damn long is often times once a person gets a place they can be there forever. There is a not a bottomless bit of housing so it creates a traffic jam if you will.

Clearly we should always have assistance to help our most vulnerable, those who physically or mentally can’t work and kids, but it’s the folks in between that often leave me scratching my head. Of course the current economic downturn is another issue since full employment is simply not available for many which means we need another tweaking of the system. I mean 26 weeks of unemployment benefits may not be realistic anymore when it can take a good year or more to find a job.

I wish I had the answers, and today’s post is more a vent but at the same time I strongly believe that if we want our government to do more than all who have the ability and are of sane mind and healthy body also need to do something. Responsibility is a two way street and sometimes we all have hard choices to make for the greater good of the whole.

5 thoughts on “Whose job is it to help?

  1. First I want to mention briefly that the 28 weeks of unemployment is also not what people are getting. I have several friends who have been on it for one to two years at a stretch recently. And, without exception, every one of them was in fact milking the system. This is a huge part of why unemployment is so high right now- at least in major metropolitan areas like LA. (Although many of the friends that are included in that statement are in the Denver, Colorado area.)

    I am much like you. I want everyone to get what they need, but there are too few checks in place to prevent them from taking advantage, which in turn makes help inaccessible to those who DO need it. The system is broken and I have thoughts on how it could be fixed. But fixes would have to come from the top and that isn’t likely to happen at a time when government sees the dependent class as more easily manipulated (after all, once you are getting the checks you vote for the guy who lets you keep getting them).

    There is a famous quote that goes something like this (though I am too lazy to look up the exact verbiage at the moment): Democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the populous discovers they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury at which time democracy always collapses under loose fiscal policy always followed by a dictatorship.

    I hope this is not where we are headed.

  2. I actually was one of the people unemployed for two years. From 30 seconds after Lehman Bros. collapsed in 2008 until Nov. 2010. It was awful and as much as I want to believe that people are “milking it” the same thing was said about me by my partner, family, and even friends.

    In that time frame I cleaned houses, I volunteered in order to get my foot into non-profit work and land a job, I sent out apps, I made 15 different resumes (teaching, admin, writing, non-profit), you name it and I had it.

    The truth is if I wasn’t granted those two years, god knows what I would be doing right now. WE pay INTO unemployment benefits, which makes it a whole new ball game. It’s a benefit that we own. It’s ridiculous to think that someone who has been employed for 15 years — at the company — will take less than 28 weeks. Ideally, there needs to be a new system.

    I am currently without insurance and have been since 2008. My partner hasn’t had insurance in a decade. I’m thrilled about Obamacare, but I know it won’t be enough. We need a single payer system but that’s not sexy and too scary for a whole bunch of folks. The ones, you know, shouting during the republican debate that, of course, we should let the 21 year old who opted for no insurance die.

  3. You both make good points and I see both sides both as a social service professional and personally. I have family members that have received unemployment for 2 years and they needed it. Sure they could have taken a job sooner but it was a job that would have been less than they previously earned and let’s face it trying to keep looking for a job once you start a new one is hard.

    I am less inclined to get pissy about unemployment, because like Liz said it’s a benefit we receive from working. In fact I get scared about how many of the new jobs these days are contract employment so the employer pays you as an independent contractor and nothing is being paid into unemployment. So you lose the job and there is no safety net.

    I think where I really start thinking hey, is about people who use resources with no end date in site. I mean everyone and anyone can hit a hard patch, it’s why I shared about using state health benefits. Sure I don’t have health insurance currently but I am better off that I was a few years ago.

    It’s clear if nothing else that we need some sort of change in this country, I just don’t know what it is.

  4. I was thinking the same thing about housing and Republican-turned views of those who were far from that thinking. As you know, you can stay on HUD here in Chicago until you die never having to lift a finger, improve your situation, or make any move toward self-sufficiency. I had a HUD voucher in Indiana but it was a different program than here. We were each given a 5 year time frame max to finish our college degrees and/or get our foot in the door for a great career. But, while we were getting a big help on paying rent every month for were required to be productive and our progress towards that goal was monitored periodically. It was the best program! Every mom that I met finished school and the good thing is, at the end of the 5 yrs, you move on and others were able to take your spot.

    If someone suggested such a program here in Chicago, they’d be run out asap.

  5. As a social worker, turned entrepreneur, this is such an interesting discussion for me. When I was in social work school, one of my professor’s said that no matter how much assistance you offer, there will always be about 30% of those people who will remain in the state they are in, so I think this is a reality that has to be accepted.

    The problem with healthcare is that we treat health as a commodity and not a right. If this country changes it’s perspective, that means HMO’s and the pharmaceutical industries won’t be making as much money as they are now. If healthcare was more affordable, this wouldn’t be as big of a problem.

    The frustration I had with social work and part of why I got out, was the fact that people weren’t being taught how to get out of their situation. In many cases, a culture of co-dependence was created and my goal was to help people help themselves, live better and dream bigger.

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