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.