frameThe FrameWorks Institute has published a series of studies investigating the most effective ways to communicate about seven social justice issues: criminal justice, human services, affordable housing, education, budgets and taxes, parenting, and aging. The issues of human services and affordable housing are particularly relevant to homeless providers and advocates. This blog post summarizes some of the key points from the institute’s Talking Human Services report, but interested readers are encouraged to check out the full document available here.

The Talking Human Services issue addresses where we are going wrong in talking about human services and how best to engage the public in supporting and understanding the field. The main barrier in the human services narrative is that it remains anchored in a charity model; in this model, we often get stuck in a differentiation between the “deserving and undeserving poor”, and much of the action is focused on proving the worthiness of those receiving services. In reality, human services do much more than address problems for those who are experiencing the worst possible conditions. Human services focus on prevention with a large focus on social determinants; promotion of well-being through ensuring supports, such as employment, transportation, and education; and direct supports for those exposed to multiple stressors so they can regain and maintain an improved quality of life.

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Image retrieved from frameworksinstitute.org.

Why are human services messages failing? The study first analyzed how Americans think about what well-being means, what threatens it, how we improve it, and what human services are and how they work. They found that the public tends to associate well-being with financial self-sufficiency and physical health, and that lack of willpower, bad parenting, and dangerous communities threaten well-being. In regards to improving well-being, the most common answers were that individuals are responsible for improving their own well-being, that the government should but cannot help due to greed on the parts of both politicians and recipients of services, and that informal networks need to step in to help. When asked what human services are, many did not know what the term “human services” meant and if they did, they defined them as purely direct services, charity, or a temporary provision of basic needs. In these answers, there is a prominent theme of individualism and a misperception of what human services are or how to help.

How do we change these messages? The study found that the use of a “building well-being” narrative provides the most effective answers to questions about human services:

  1. What is at stake?
    • Human Potential – Help people recognize that everyone needs support and human services benefit everyone.
  2. What kind of support do people need?
    • Construction – Use a construction metaphor to explain what well-being is and how it is shaped. Explain that well-being is built and strengthened by things such as social relationships, community resources, and opportunities. This metaphor communicates the importance of a strong foundation for growth and the need for ongoing support, and emphasizes that human services construct well-being and address faults in the way well-being was constructed rather than focusing on or blaming personal characteristics.
  3. What threatens well-being?
    • Construction – Use extensions and implications of the metaphor, such as bad construction or unpredictable weather, to explain how context affects outcomes. For example, discuss how “spotty construction” of a house, like inadequate support, can lead to later problems. The “unpredictable weather” metaphor emphasizes that there are things outside of an individual’s control, such as economic downturn, that affect well-being, much like how bad weather can affect the stability of a house. 
  4. How do we ensure well-being for all?
    • Construction – Use this metaphor to help people think about the different ways human services support well-being. Compare human service professionals to the professionals who construct buildings. Point out that there are several specialists who help in the construction of a building, such as planning, building, and ongoing maintenance specialists, much like how human services professionals are involved in many different areas of building and sustaining well-being.
    • Life Cycle – Use life cycle examples to help people understand that human services help people at all stages of the life cycle from infancy to older adulthood. Provide concrete examples of different programs that serve people in all stages of life and to a diverse array of recipients.

The public tends to fall into traps of thinking that make it harder to gain support for human services, such as misunderstanding what these services are and a large sense of individualism that can be difficult to break. This framework provides a tool for human service professionals and advocates to break through these traps and further human service efforts.

Keep an eye out for an upcoming post about the FrameWorks Institute’s issue on framing conversations about affordable housing.

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Blog Post Author: Kelsey Whittington, MSW, graduate assistant for the National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services.

Like this post?
Check out this one Kelsey wrote about employment supports for people experiencing homelessness.

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