This piece was contributed by Sloane Shearman, a staff member at Learn Liberty.
“Any Problem, Any Time”
That’s the motto of the Community Help Centre in State College, Pennsylvania. While pursuing my undergraduate degree at Penn State, I volunteered as a counselor on their crisis and basic needs hotline. Many people assume that the hotline was a suicide hotline, catering to clients in severe emotional distress. At times it was, especially during the late hours of the night and around holidays. During the daytime, though, the hotline fielded calls from individuals in a wide variety of situations.
People were often referred by other assistance organizations, social workers, or friends in similar circumstances. Usual daytime calls might include clarifying the hours of the food bank, helping individuals sign up for fuel vouchers, or patiently listening to frustrated, distraught clients who had been turned away from one assistance program—and referring them to another.
Hotline counselors went through up to twelve hours of training per week for six months, and I was surprised to discover that much of that time was spent learning how to navigate the myriad private and public organizations in the community dedicated to helping people in need. I am embarrassed to admit that I was initially frustrated to spend so much time poring over the intricate, tedious details of the functions of these organizations, how they operate, and their criteria for providing assistance.
I quickly learned that Community Help Centre functions as an informational hub. As difficult and mentally taxing as it was for me to learn the ins and outs of this web of services, it is unimaginably worse for people in need.
Herein lies the intuitive, but not immediately obvious nature of working closely with people facing financial hardship: when responding to a person facing eviction, or hunger, or frozen pipes, it is not helpful to hand them a form and transfer them to the next stage of bureaucracy.
Yes, doing those things is better than not doing them, but those who wish to truly help others must recognize that these are times of financial and emotional crisis. While they involve more tangible problems than those struggling with mental illness or grief, individuals in these situations often need just as much—and sometimes more—compassion and patience.
Like most people in that line of work, I was attracted to the work due to my desire to help people. While providing someone with the resources they needed gave me a deep sense of joy, often it seemed that all I could really do was lend people an understanding ear.
“What am I supposed to do?”
The Community Help Centre emphasized helping clients solve their problems without formal assistance. Counselors were trained to inquire if clients had asked their friends, family, or faith communities for help before referring them to other organizations. While we understood and did not take lightly the toll this took on clients’ pride, there were several reasons this measure was necessary.
First, this prevented unnecessary strains on existing resources within the network. Second, individuals are able to transfer money and other resources more quickly than bureaucracies. Once aware of the problem, individuals are also more likely to investigate the problem and provide ongoing assistance or solutions in ways outside agencies are not. Finally, personal connections may be able to help those in need in ways that organizations simply cannot.
One call illustrated this final point for me and profoundly affected my perspective on aid distribution. As I answered the phone, a young woman quickly announced, “I don’t need money or food stamps—I just got a job! What I really need, though, is a bike to get there. Can you help me?” My moment of happiness for her quickly faded as I turned over several options in my head. She was new to the area without any existing support network. Furthermore, there were no programs designed to distribute bikes to those in need.
Resignedly, I gave her the contact information for local churches that had flexible funds, just as I always did for callers whose needs did not fall neatly into the purview of government programs. I wished her luck, but I couldn’t help but worry that the funds wouldn’t be there for her and that she would be calling back soon, this time for money and food stamps.
Why couldn’t I help her? Simple expenses like this could save taxpayer money in the long run, helping people overcome a momentary rough patch and enabling them to support themselves.
When resources are distributed by government agencies, their purpose inevitably becomes politicized. Politicians, answering to their constituents, would find it hard to articulate why bicycles are a proper public expenditure.
These disputes lead to rigidity that plagues government-provided assistance. Many cannot imagine having to resort to the social safety net to survive. The vast majority of clients we served did not make terrible life choices or need long-term assistance—there just wasn’t enough money in the budget for car repairs and rent, or a parent lost their job, or someone fell ill. Their needs are immediate and temporary, and government-run programs are not.
It was obvious that an early intervention would save money and the emotional distress that comes with these situations, but our clients weren’t needy enough to qualify for help. For example, our case managers were aghast to learn that funds that had previously been allocated for a program that helped individuals pay their rent had been slashed. The justification was that much of the money had been put toward building new homeless shelters in the area. Without context, it may seem obvious that providing shelter to the homeless is a more necessary expenditure than helping people pay their rent. But the manifest reality is that rather than helping families stay in their homes in the first place, they could receive help only once the floor had disappeared beneath them.
French economist Frederic Bastiat’s essay “That Which is Seen and That Which is Unseen” explains what the Pennsylvania budget does not: Taking money away from communities only to redistribute it back to them results in fewer resources than if individuals or private organizations were to provide charitable assistance themselves.
This piece is part of a two-part series on government, charity, and community. You can check out part one here.