How Much Harm Do Social Services Do?

A few weeks ago, I received this email from Dan Oliver of Cleveland, Ohio, asking my thoughts on the role of social service agencies in undercutting the power of families and neighborhoods to solve their own problems:

Dear Mr. McKnight,

I am currently reading your book The Careless Society.  While I find many of your ideas about the professional service industry to be insightful, I am also troubled to see in your writing what appears to be a reversal of often plainly evident cause-and-effect relationships regarding the consumption of social services.

I quote from your chapter “Do No Harm”:

“The community, a social space where citizens turn to solve problems, may be displaced by the intervention of human service professionals acting as an alternative method of problem-solving.  Human service professionals with special expertise, techniques, and technology push out the problem-solving knowledge and action of friend, neighbor, citizen, and association.” (p. 105-106)               

I believe I understand the rationale behind statements like these.  I concede that there are some instances where professional services encroach upon more appropriate familial and cultural tools and traditions for the resolution of conflicts.  Your example early in the book of a bereavement counselor offering a professional, esoteric body of knowledge and technique to a group with such cohesive and entrenched cultural practices as those of an American Indian people is a fine example.  But I do object to the notion that most (or even many) of our country’s most pressing social problems are the direct or indirect result of “specifically counterproductive” human service operations.

I work for a suicide and mental health crisis hotline in Cleveland, Ohio.  My experience has taught me the exact opposite of the idea summarized in the quotation above.  I find that those most in need of speaking to a stranger on the telephone about a crisis they are experiencing in their life are those without a network of social supports.  These individuals are not calling a community mental health agency because we, as human service providers, have usurped their family’s role as the principal source of sustaining support.  They are very often calling precisely because those supports have broken down — or were never there in the first place.  Rarely do I speak with someone on the phone who has a tightly knit family, a loving spouse, a close circle of good friends, or children who are emotionally and financially supportive as he or she comes of old age.

You may argue that these invaluable personal resources have been chased away by service providers in need of ever more extensive client markets, but you and I both know there are far too many families out there that have always been broken.  There are too many individuals who have grown up in poverty without the structure of a functional school system, without any real opportunity for meaningful change in their socioeconomic status, and without any real role models to help show them the way.  There are too many individuals beset with symptoms of serious mental illness which cut them off from community and family members.  It is not the case that human service professionals have divested communities of their sense of collective competency and meaningfulness.  Rather, human services largely attempt to address the already-present deterioration of community which, I would argue, has actually resulted from the vast increases in sheer geographical size of our cities, a loss of moral authority by our religious institutions, and an ever-worsening popular consumerist culture propagated by mass media.  When people struggle with practical problems such as chronic illness or financial hardship, they are too often struggling against such already troubling socio-cultural backdrops.

My question to you at this point is this: In the 15 years since the publication of The Careless Society, what further thoughts on these issues have you developed?  Do you find it was right for its time?  Do you believe its ideas still reflect our nation’s socio-political realities?  Have you come to reconsider any of your major arguments?

As a student of human needs and services, I thank you for your contributions to efforts aiming to empower people against social forces which would undermine their capability, autonomy, and humanity.  It is a mad, mad world we inhabit, and we need all the voices in favor of real solutions we can get.
Dan Oliver
Cleveland, OH


In my email back to Dan to thank him for his very thoughtful critique, I had to say that my belief that the social services industry is part of the problem, not the solution, is stronger today than it was 15 years ago.

Perhaps I haven’t matured yet (I’m just 79) but I still have basically the same views, I said to Daniel. I appreciate the fact that failed communities and families require compensatory responses but finally the balance has tipped and the compensation becomes dominant over the norm. Everywhere in my neighborhood and with friends I hear “she needs professional help” as the natural and necessary response to every form of deviance, pain, misbehavior.

The result is that our communities are evermore homogenous and incompetent.

~ John ~

Photo by Sparlingo

About the Lead Author

John McKnight
John McKnight
John McKnight is emeritus professor of education and social policy and codirector of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at DePaul University. He is the coauthor of Building Communities from the Inside Out and the author of The Careless Society. He has been a community organizer and serves on the boards of several national organizations that support neighborhood development.

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