Accessing Social Services: Where do the rules come from? Follow the money.

Agencies and organizations that provide assistance to families in need, at any level, will always have a list of Rules, Rights, and Responsibilities. A lot of the time it’s about two, double-sided pages long, and is a form which is provided as part of the initial application process. Usually there are two copies, one which the “client/applicant” signs and submits with the application and a copy for the client/applicant to retain. Signing and submitting this form states that the client/applicant has read, understood, AND agrees to abide by the terms and conditions set fort in that document. I believe that one of the biggest reasons for stress, tension, and conflict between the client/applicant and the agency personnel is the fact that a majority of people fail to read and understand these documents before signing and turning them in. Then, when they unintentionally violate the rules or fail to follow through on the responsibilities, they complain that their rights are being denied.

Where do these rules come from?

Generally speaking the rules come from the source of the funding. Private sector organizations, called private, non-profits, are organizations which provide services for which those receiving the services do not pay or pay a minimal amount. Free and low-cost services still require financing. The employees of the organizations have to earn a living wage, the building has to be maintained, supplies have to be paid for, as well as the actual services which the client receives. Somebody, somewhere is paying for that. Business 101: There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch!

The most common analogy I can think of is commercial television. Prior to digitization, cable, and satellite, it was possible (and still is, although it isn’t well known or easy to understand how to access) for people to plug in their television, attach an antenna, and watch “free” television programming. However, that programming isn’t really “free.” Somebody is paying the costs associated with airing the programming: the salaries of the employees who handle all the behind the scenes support for putting the programming together, the “talent,” (the faces and voices the public wants to see and hear), and provide profit for the shareholders of the various companies involved in program development. This is where the dreaded commercials come in. Companies which have products they wish to market and sell to the same public who is watching the programming, pay for commercial time during shows which likely are watched by their target audience. So, these companies purchase advertising slots, during the shows in which to tell the viewers about their products and try t convince them to purchase the products.

Social service agencies receive their funding from various sources; usually a mixture of government funding at the federal, state, and local levels in combination with money they have received from corporations and foundations who have approved grant applications, and donations received from corporations and individuals who have contributed money to the program’s cause. Government funding comes from collections of taxes and fees which have been associated with specific laws and regulations put into effect by our democratic process. All public money comes with layers and layers of political and legal language specifying how the money which has been collected from the citizens can be used in service to the citizens. As a result of people trying to legislate and regulate real and perceived abuses of public funds, an overwhelming number of regulatory rules have been attached to every penny of public money.

If the organiztion which has received public funds to run specific programs fails to be in complete compliance with all of those rules and they are audited, the organization can be fined and have its funding removed. Therefore, the rules the organization has to abide by, get written into the the rules which the clients have to adhere to. A clients failure to understand and follow the rules, if not caught and appropriately corrected and resolved by the program administrators, can result in the loss of services to all of the clients in the program because the funding could be yanked for non-compliance.

This is also true for funds which come from corporations and foundations. Money that comes from these sources are like scholarships which have to be applied for at regular intervals. Every application period has multiple private, non-profits competing for the money to fund their programs. Grant proposals are written which detail every aspect of the program they are trying to get funding for. The grant proposals talk about the target population for whom the services are being established. It identifies the need and where that need comes from. The grant writers have to explain step by step what the mission, goals, and expected outcomes are and how these things are expected to be achieved, including what the program rules and expectations will be for those who are receiving the services. If the grant is approved, chosen over all the other grant proposals received, the funding is provided with the expectation that all of the details of program development and administration will be adhered to. These are then written into the rules, responsibilities, and expectations the client/recipients are required to agree to. Failure to comply and adhere to the terms of the grant can end the possibility of that grant continuing to be funded and result in the loss of services.

When we request services from any agency or organization, we must understand that these services are not free. Someone is paying for them. As part of that understanding we have to accept that what we aren’t paying for in money, we are paying for with our time, our attitude, and our performance in adhering to the program requirements and meeting our agreed upon responsibilities. If we fail to comply with the terms and conditions of the program, because we didn’t take the time to read and understand the rules and responsibilities of participating in the program, then we have likely given up some of the rights associated with them as well. Our willful ignorance of these things can and will result in loss of services which we need and could potentially result in loss of services to other families and the inability of the agency to continue to provide those services to the community.

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The Connundrum of Accessing Social Services: Control, rules, and authority

There are a lot of agencies, organizations, and programs designed to assist people and families that are experiencing subsistence level needs of all kinds. Government administered programs through county, city, and state offices such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrtional Assistance Program or “Food Stamps”), TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (Cash Assistance or “Welfare”), Medicaid (OHP/OHP Plus and other health care coverage administered by the state), and ERDC (Employment Related Day Care assistance) are the most common programs thought of, but there are many others. Other programs are administered through community based social service agencies and CDCs (Community Development Corporations) such as Human Solutions, LifeWorks Northwest, and Hacienda CDC are just a few.

It can be quite overwhelming for a family experiencing life crises, especially crises that are economic in nature, to know where to start or how to deal with the complex and seemingly arbitrary rules associated with accessing the services. If family members have been exposed to, grew up in, or have prejudicial attitudes toward those who access government benefits and assistance, it can be even more challenging. For families which have been caught up in generational patterns and cycles of poverty, it can be even worse because of the stigma and prejudices that are so widely prevalent in all forms of media. The degree of stigma, judgment, prejudice, and negative assumptions is very disheartening, demeaning, and undermining of people who genuinely are trying to find a way to dig themselves out of entrenched poverty cycles and for those who find themselves, for the first time in their lives falling into that trench.

Today, I want to address those who find themselves in the unenviable position of needing to ask for help through these programs and agencies.

Asking for help, regardless of the reason for needing the help, is a position most people find themselves in at one point or another in their lives. Everyone makes a mistake, makes a wrong decision, or encounters unexpected events they weren’t prepared for. It’s a fact of life. Some people are educated, trained, equipped, and have the cognitive, emotional, spiritual, and psychological strengths to navigate these things with minimal externally visible effects. Many people are not prepared and may experience any combination of things which combine together in ways that show unmistakable effects, often identified as negative.

If you are someone who is feeling overwhelmed with panic and axiety about your circumstances and who has experienced a lot of hardship and difficulty, reaching out to strangers behind a counter and having to explain your need for their assistance can feel like you are walking into the lion’s den. I’ve been in your situation. I understand what it feels like to fill out packets of forms, then get interviewed and have to explain the answers on the forms. I know, firsthand, the conflicting feelings of defensiveness and desperation, which make you second and third guess every word that comes from your mouth as you watch every eye twitch and body shift of the person you are being interviewed by to determine how they may be judging you and and your words.

I think one of the biggest problems for those of us needing to ask for assistance from these programs is the fact that we are required to disclose every detail and facet of our personal information and provide documentation that we are who we say we are, then justify the fact that we are in a position needing assistance. We often face people who may see tens to hundreds of faces like ours with stories like ours, day in and day out, and our stories and circumstances are not unique in their experience. So, they become numb, jaded, and immune to what we are experiencing emotionally. They appear bored, indifferent, jaded, cynical, matter of fact, and uncaring a lot of the time. There is little to no empathy or compassion displayed and while they may say they understand, they do little to demonstrate that understanding of what we are experiencing.

Somehow, being in the position of requesting assistance, subverts our rights to privacy, autonomy, and independent action. We become accountable to the rules, guidelines, and policies, because they are the rules, guidelines, and policies and these people are the gatekeepers who get to say whether or not we are worthy of being assisted, after we have submitted to full disclosure and full exposure of our most sensitive selves. We become serfs, supplicating ourselves, at the feet of beaurocratic cogs in the system of funding streams, political posturing, and edicts established by highly educated academic theoreticians in think tanks who have little to no direct personal experience with the kind of subsistence and hardship we have gone through which brought us through the doors.

So, people who are feeling the heat of societal stigma, subjected to indifferent and seemingly uncaring administrators, while experiencing stressful and disruptive life-circumstances, who may not be experienced or equipped with effective communication and social skills, are expected to act in rational, compliant ways to make the jobs of those who are processing their requests easier, with little or no expectation that the person they are dealing with is equipped or experienced at interacting with the same level of communication and social skill competency they are expected to have.

Social Work Cartoon: Client, service user, what’s his name?

Do you see the conundrum?