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.