The unfortunate truth about crises is that they tend to reveal longstanding problems that we chose to ignore—because we could, or at least thought we could. Catastrophic events like wars, economic downturns, and global pandemics have a way of focusing our attention on systemic problems that otherwise might slip from policymakers’ agendas. The human services sector should seize this moment to rebuild and reimagine the safety net that has frayed over time.
From providing emergency food assistance to processing surging applications for unemployment benefits, human services agencies are undertaking heroic efforts right now to meet the needs presented by the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease it causes. But the COVID-19 crisis has also exposed issues that have challenged the sector for decades: fragmentation across agencies and programs, funding models that are not sufficient or stable, too little support for the frontline workforce, and outmoded forms of engagement that rely heavily on in-person interaction.
For the human services sector, and those who support it, the current pandemic should serve as a wake-up call and spur a process for remedying these issues.
The pandemic began as a public health crisis, but it quickly spilled over to human services. People face multiple stressors from COVID-19: fears and anxieties about sickness and loss of income, adaptation to school closures and work from home, separation from family and friends, and the risks and traumas faced by frontline workers and other essential employees. Unabated close contact among household members while under stay-at-home orders raises concerns about increased domestic violence and child maltreatment.
Understandably, the health sector’s challenges are on the front pages every day; regular readers know about the lack of personnel, the lack of intensive care unit beds, and the lack of protective gear. The human services sector does not draw as much attention, but critical vulnerabilities are also present. First, in this crisis, the inefficiencies and challenges of the current patchwork of safety net programs have become even more apparent. Services are fragmented. Food assistance is handled by a different agency than cash assistance, which is in a different agency than employment insurance. For years, we have looked for ways to improve cross-agency data sharing and coordination, but major breakthroughs have been few. Partnerships with providers are fraying when agencies should be coming together to ensure that the family with recently laid-off parents has adequate access to food; housing; child care; and financial assistance for transportation, electricity, and other essentials.
One reason those partnerships are fraying is that the private organizations that deliver services on behalf of the government don’t have the resources to keep up with the demand. Although some social services are provided directly by government workers, many more are provided by nongovernmental, generally nonprofit, organizations under contract from the government. Government dollars often support only a portion of private agencies’ operating costs. These agencies face a double crisis, as government dollars are not keeping up with need. As the economy stalls, private donations also lag.
Another challenge is the long-standing concerns about short-staffed agencies with high caseloads and social workers dealing with trauma from their jobs. Particularly in human services areas like child welfare and domestic violence prevention and treatment, worker turnover has been high, and support for self care by staff has been lacking. Workers now face increased stress at home. On the job, they struggle to support the families they cannot interact with face-to-face. We need to support these workers better with enhanced training, up-to-date technology, lower caseloads, and more recognization of the vital roles they play.
Finally, human services agencies need to modernize how they engage with clients. In health care, medical practices that have set up telemedicine in order to keep appointments are likely to maintain the option in the future. The human services sector should review situations where it has found alternatives to in-person meetings, such as phone calls for benefit applications and benefit renewals, and make those permanent options for people who cannot easily visit in person even after social distancing restrictions lift. Likewise, social services agencies need to update the methods they use to gather information on potential instances of domestic violence and child maltreatment. For child maltreatment, they have relied heavily on reports from medical and educational professionals, but even in normal times, child maltreatment and domestic violence are so-called silent epidemics that occur indoors, often undetected outside the home. Agencies need to explore how they might use new sources of information, such as social media and administrative data, to flag households faster and earlier for support.
As we emerge from this crisis, we can think of additional ways to monitor the well-being of families, improving screening tools and methods to get the right services to the right families at the right time.
In closing, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the current crisis is how COVID-19 appears to be striking communities of color harder than other communities. These communities have suffered from service disparities in health and human services for years. We need to learn from this crisis and understand why these disparities occur and how to address them during and long after the crisis. Human services disparities, like health care disparities, put vulnerable people at further risk.
We must learn from this crisis. Let’s applaud our frontline first-responder human services professionals across the country for addressing the current crisis, and let’s get to work on building a better system to support them and the people they serve in the future.