Let’s Support “Locally Grown” Social Services

By Nancy Wackstein, MSW; Director of Community Engagement and Partnerships at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Service.

There is no trend more significant in today’s food and restaurant culture than “local.” There is a growing consensus that being a “locavore” and eating food grown, raised or produced locally – usually within 100 miles of the point of consumption – is good for local economies, good for health and good for the environment by reducing fuel consumption associated with transportation.

I would argue that it’s time to reorient New York City social services delivery back toward a locavore model as well: locally delivered, locally staffed, locally supported when possible – maybe even produced within one mile of the consumer! As with the food supply, there was a time not long ago when residents of a particular neighborhood knew their local social service agency and community center, whether a settlement house, a Y or a storefront information center. People looking for assistance did not have to travel out of their neighborhoods to get the help they needed, or to socialize, learn or simply have fun together. Nor did they want to.

Clearly, social services were locally sourced! And here, too, the benefits were obvious: familiarity and comfort, proximity and reduced travel time and continuity, sometimes over generations.

A report released in 2015 by United Neighborhood Houses reinforced the importance of this local approach. The 3,000 settlement house participants who were surveyed reported a greater sense of “belonging” and “embeddedness” through participation at their local agency. In a huge impersonal city like New York, can anything be more important than creating and nourishing a sense of belonging? Through their local organizations, these participants also learned more about their own neighborhoods and how to help improve their communities by working together with neighbors they met there … “building community.”

However, as with the food industry, over the last few decades, “progress” and “modernity” overtook the social services sector. Nonprofit agencies were exhorted to model themselves on corporations: the only path to sustainability was through growth, and more growth. And a prevailing ideology emerged: scale automatically equals efficiency.

Agencies were urged to consolidate and merge so more people could be served and larger catchment areas covered, sometimes even borough-wide and citywide. Underpinning the growth and consolidation trend was often the belief that there just were just too many nonprofit providers resulting in redundant programming and overlapping areas of service – inefficiencies.

Trends in city government funding embraced and supported this ideology. Contracts for services began to privilege larger and larger social service providers in the name of efficiency. Requests for proposals were designed to identify agencies that could serve larger geographic areas containing larger numbers of people. Why contract with 90 different smaller nonprofits when you could contract with five larger ones? Wouldn’t doing so save the the taxpayers money?

“Progress” has brought us to 2016 New York, where ever-larger nonprofits dominate the landscape of social services delivery. Such agencies typically are the only ones who can produce the scale that government contracts increasingly require: the number of individuals served, the geographic areas covered, the outcome data. And larger agencies typically are the only ones who can negotiate successfully with third-party payers like managed care companies for Medicaid funded services, signifying their ability to survive in the new reimbursement environment.

Have we created our own agribusiness right here in New York City that will inevitably drive out the family farms? And if so, what has been lost if we have? Will it even matter to consumers?

What is lost is that many local organizations with deep ties to their communities have been left out of the picture, denied the opportunity to compete for city and state contracts because they are too small or serve a particular niche population. Many newer organizations focused on a particular neighborhood or population simply can’t compete for contracts when these are conceptualized and structured by government agencies to serve vast citywide populations and areas. I believe this will matter tremendously to consumers because if these organizations fail to thrive, the people in those neighborhoods, and the communities themselves will be depleted.

In the food industry, when the niche producers began to disappear, our food became generic, homogenized and even flavorless. (Ever tasted those winter tomatoes?) The “local” movement then developed as a response to over-centralization, outsized scale and sameness.

If we don’t want local organizations with unique competencies and strong neighborhood ties to go the way of family farms, I believe it’s time to rethink service delivery. Yes, New York City is huge, but it also is a city of unique neighborhoods that should and could be enriched by locally based and locally determined services.

Let’s not lose the niche, targeted services that respond to local needs. Let’s not lose the programs that grew up in neighborhoods because that’s what the neighbors said they wanted. Let’s not make residents have to leave their neighborhoods to get help. Let’s invest in the “place-based” services that we know have always worked. By doing so, we will strengthen both individuals and communities.

I’ll eat to that!

Nancy Wackstein, MSW
Director of Community Engagement & Partnerships
Fordham University
Graduate School of Social Service
113 West 60th Street
New York, NY 10023