What's in Store for 2022? Our Top 3 Predictions for the Social Safety Net
As 2021 draws to a close, we at HealthSpark spent some time reflecting on what we've heard from safety net providers over the last year about their challenges, hopes, and priorities. Through our conversations, surveys, and gatherings, we know that one thing is for certain- our sector is experiencing a tremendous amount of upheaval and potential for systemic change.
What follows are our predictions for where the local safety net sector is headed in 2022. There are no shortage of challenges, to be sure, but we also are invigorated by the growing demand for systemic reform on issues that touch the core of what we do, how we treat our staff, and how we engage our community in a new vision for resiliency.
1. The human services sector will need to address staff burnout, and its impact on the workforce, in significant ways.
The last two years of the pandemic have placed an inordinate burden on safety net provider staff. In our conversations with partners, staff from leadership to front line workers have shared their stresses in trying to keep up with an unsustainable number of clients needing safety net services, a deepening complexity in the types of issues they are challenged to address within their client populations, changing and confusing public health guidance, and the lack of resources and community infrastructure (such as affordable housing and childcare) available to truly help in any given situation.
On top of this, the work environment and pay for safety net providers is proving unsustainable. Most nonprofit jobs pay less and offer fewer benefits than private sector jobs- a fact that many go into with open eyes but that our society has taken advantage of for far too long. The safety net system that supports our entire community- especially in times of crisis- is built on the backs of provider staff through a structural, decades-long practice of underfunding safety net services and relying on volunteers and private philanthropy to pick up the difference in the true cost of service.
"The safety net system that supports our entire
community- especially in times of crisis- is built
on the backs of provider staff."
Given that nonprofits are often beholden to funders and single-year budget cycles for their employees’ pay, it’s incredibly difficult for nonprofit leadership to respond quickly to workforce issues by raising wages or offering expanded benefits. Some individual providers in Montgomery County have been able to do so, as evidenced through our spring 2021 survey of local safety net leaders, but there is yet to be data showing this is a widespread trend every provider can manage.
In the coming year, we predict the impact of the pandemic on the safety net workforce will begin to get the attention it deserves as residents raise complaints with elected officials about growing waitlists for services, government contracts are hampered by lack of staff capacity, nonprofits negotiate for higher pay rates, and growing advocacy efforts challenge the status quo at county, state, and federal levels. Whether this translates into sustained policy changes will be dependent upon the coordination of advocacy efforts across the sector and the willingness of policymakers and funders to make difficult decisions that uproot systemic practices.
2. The sector will increasingly focus on how to use data strategically.
However, challenges abound, and providers seem to be citing more frustrations around data than optimism. Access to comprehensive, trustworthy, and consistent data is limited, with silos occurring between sectors and privacy concerns inhibiting the system’s ability to use client-level data effectively. Many providers cite public data sources as their primary source of data- which leaves questions about how local residents are faring and the effectiveness of local service provision.
"Many providers cite public data sources as their
primary source of data- which leaves questions
about how local residents are faring and the
effectiveness of local service provision."
That all said- there is tremendous interest in growing this capacity for organizations, especially in how data is connected to advocacy for more just public policy and funding practices, and as a means of garnering greater support for the safety net system within the general public. There’s a role for everyone to play, and recently conversations spurred the following ideas for investment in data capacity-building:
- Foundations and government can partner on building data capacity within the social safety net by promoting best practices, funding data analysis tools and staffing, and supporting more effective communications practices using data.
- All partners can take part in facilitating, implementing, and encouraging general data sharing across organizations and sectors as well as standard approaches to data collection.
- Nonprofits can begin, and funders can support, pilot approaches to data sharing to inform larger scale opportunities.
HealthSpark is excited about the prospects of using data to help inform business decisions about expanding services to new communities, new populations, developing new, cost-effective partnerships, and honing attention to outcomes that bring meaningful value to the consumers who use programs and services.
3. Advocacy for systems reform will continue to grow, with a stronger focus on directly engaging residents.
The public health, economic, and social crises of the last two years have spurred discussion, civic engagement, and action across the safety net sector. More recently, the new funding that the American Rescue Plan makes available to counties, municipalities, and school districts, as well as the provisions within the Plan that strongly encourage citizen participation in planning processes, create an incredible opportunity for local safety net providers and activists to push for better safety net policies and deeper investments at all levels of local government.
"The new funding that the American Rescue Plan
makes available... creates an incredible
opportunity for local safety net providers and
activists to push f or better safety net policies
and deeper investments at all levels of local
Already, we’ve seen action coming together through groups like the Here for Us Advocacy Coalition to influence how decisions on these funds are being made. At the county level, policymakers have been responsive to efforts to create more transparency in the process, engaging safety net providers in identifying needs, and investing in pathways for nontraditional grant recipients to apply for funds.
One-time American Rescue Plan funding has the opportunity to address long-standing challenges in the safety net system. These funds are both a blessing and a potential curse in that they are onetime allocations of funding that, if used thoughtfully, could better position the system to achieve financial resiliency and programmatic effectiveness.
Advocates are also pushing for stronger and more direct resident engagement, particularly by communities that are excluded from most government processes due to language and cultural barriers; accessibility issues related to childcare, transportation, and timing; and methods of communication with the public. Similar to the push we’ve seen within the safety net sector to include consumers of safety net services within nonprofit planning, advocates for greater governmental transparency are also pushing for a much stronger focus on civic participation and community engagement in how taxpayer funds are spent during times of crisis.
As a part of this growing focus on civic engagement, we think there will be stronger discussion of ways to engage residents who don’t speak English as a primary language. As the most recent Census data highlights the growing Hispanic/Latino and Asian American populations in the County, more recognition is being paid to provide safety net services in languages beyond English, to build better partnerships with culturally diverse local groups, and to think about building strategies across the sector that can provide more inclusive and culturally competent services.
"Advocates are also pushing for stronger and
more direct resident engagement, particularly
by communities that are excluded from most
We predict that these efforts towards greater civic engagement will become a strong focus of local planning efforts. More so, we predict that the new focus on transparency and community engagement during the crisis funding period will be applied as “lessons learned” for the annual budgeting, procurement, and other government processes that have a regular impact on citizen life in Montgomery County.
We are deeply grateful for the opportunity to walk alongside our safety net providers in envisioning a Montgomery County where every resident has the opportunity to thrive and where safety net providers are committed to taking action on these issues. To all of our partners, we'd like to thank you for your partnership on this journey.