Humanism vs Human Services

Years ago, when I first began to consider the possibility of what would later become the Open Referral Initiative, I reached out to my former colleague Matt Siemer with a question.i

When we’d worked together at Bread for the City, amid marathon Smiths playlists and recurring Werner Herzog impersonations, Matt had once expressed a strong distaste for the phrase “human services.” At the time I hadn’t really seen the problem. But when I suddenly found myself using the phrase with some regularity, something about it did feel off. I couldn’t put my finger on it (nor did I prefer “social services” for any clear reason). So I looped back to Matt, who had since gone off to study ‘hermeneutics,’ in what I imagined to be a remote stone tower so sky-high and constantly buttressed by clouds that one could simply drink from goblets suspended out of the window.

Matt’s response came all at once (via Facebook message) and left me sitting in silent awe for a while. It has lingered with me ever since, so I eventually asked Matt if I could share it here. Thanks to Matt for his permission, and generally for his weird and wonderful example of how to be a human being.


My trouble, if I’m remembering right, was not only with the words themselves (that they inadequately described the group of activities comprised therein), but that calling those tasks “human” services seemed an especially damning reflection of what we thought we were capable of as human beings.

Humanism was once the study of how best to understand each other. The thinking was that conflicts between human beings were largely the result of misinterpretations, and that by fostering a society rich in literature and the arts, people could use those narratives to connect their situations to those of other people and gain greater sympathy for the complexity of our shared condition. Compassion, community, mutual progress and peace were thought to be the logical end of efforts like universal education, public debate, and (above all) acknowledgement that we are all responsible for the welfare of each other. Humanism is often seen as the kernel leading to the enlightenment, democracy, social justice work, and public literacy campaigns. To be human under this rubric meant to strive toward the betterment of all, and to find in that striving a meaning for existing together. To be human meant to carry your part of the burden. I guess when I was younger I was guided by this definition of human, and as a result the idea of emergency assistance of different kinds being described as “human” services left a decidedly rank odor.

For, by contrast, what do we find under our so-named “human” services? The administration of various types of care for low-income people, almost always underfunded, taken on by some only because it hasn’t been appropriately assumed by all. And because there are so many in need and so few accepted models of assistance, too many fall through and the ones assisted are too rarely transformed by the intervention. And though they would like to do more, the few people interested in solving the issue of poverty are being forced to wait until the very last possible moment, when a person is homeless or horribly sick or hungry or mentally damaged, to offer help. What’s human about that—about neglecting widespread distress until it’s virtually unfixable and then handcuffing the people designated to help?

I don’t suppose you would blame me for objecting to labeling such services under a definition of human. Is it human to make hell on earth for other people? Is it human to ignore the basic needs of another body until they become so severe that the person can’t function in normal society? Is it human to have the vast majority of a people reify an economic structure based on the scarcity of currency and then blame the people who can’t access the scarce resource?

What we exhibit, we are. And what we do defines us. Human services are cruel, cowardly, resentful, and ungracious. They exist that way because they’re constructed not for the benefit of those who would like to help, but for those spiteful belligerents who don’t want to see assistance provided until someone is squirming on the ground begging for it. Under this model, solipsists can willfully ignore each other, buying trinkets with cotton paper that has value only because some have it and others don’t. And they will argue and fight to the point of hyperbole to make sure the human race isn’t acknowledged, understood, or cared for.

So call these services “human” if they’re human. But let’s also then define what human means: flawed, callous, meager, tardy, hard-hearted, inadequate, and lack-luster. Let’s call humans a race of sick souls eager to inflict sadness on each other, pitiless and ungracious animals not fit to exploit the gifts their forbearers passed on as the result of mutual labor. And if “human services” are the best effort that we can muster, if that’s the best we can do for each other, then let’s speak of humans as a black stain and keep blameless the minority that would rather work toward our extinction.

I suppose I would have said something to that effect. But that was six years ago when I was still thinking in terms of politics. It could be said now, perhaps more fairly, that the vast majority of people are unintentionally cruel when poverty is an abstraction, but when the reality of poverty reaches them on a visceral level, their reactions are surprising, emotional, compassionate, and occasionally inspired. Human services are as short-sighted and slapdash as any other human effort. They’re not perfect and they never will be. But they exist because a plurality of people still try to understand each other and still act when they meet an injustice. I can’t help but think of all the people whose lives have been completely changed by the Catholic Workers or the unions or Bread for the City or even the federal efforts like SCHIP or SNAP, and I have to acknowledge they have an impact, even if it isn’t nearly what we would all like it to be. In a way, it’s appropriate that efforts to save lives are considered “human” services. They may be the last vestige of a noble effort meant to teach us all how to be human.

— Matt Siemer

10. April 2016 by
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