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What are human services?

“It would be helpful to provide an official or generally accepted definition, but there is no such thing.” (Burger & Youkeles, 2008, p. 8) Defining human services is not simple. The term has evolved over many years and has no specific meaning on which everyone would agree. In general, though, services are things some people do to help other people. It is no more complicated than that. If you do something to help me, you are providing a service. The question is then, What is a human service?

Answering this question is challenging. We start with a simple reality. Each of us has needs, problems, and vulnerabilities beyond our individual capacity to cope. Putting the same point in different terms, each of us may, from time to time, go it alone; but we cannot survive and succeed over time by ourselves. “Sometimes the weight of social and personal problems makes it difficult to solve all of one’s problems without the input of trusted helpers.” (Poindexter & Valentine, 2007, p. 3) We have to have the support and assistance of other people. Some of us need more support and assistance than others and we each need different levels of support and assistance at various times in our lives. Nonetheless, none of us can survive and succeed without some help along the way. This help may come in the form of direct assistance, targeted supports, individual opportunities, group or community resources, and a myriad of other forms. Whatever form it takes, the help is necessary for survival and success.

The array of supports and services we all draw on is complex and extensive. It ranges from the Fire Department to the local bank, from safe roads to hospitals, from drinkable water to an adequate food supply. If we restrict the view to day-to-day services and supports enabling individuals to grow and succeed, the array is still far-reaching. It includes supports for physical health and well-being, for emotional support and nurturing, for social experience and opportunity, for moral guidance and enrichment, for educational growth and intellectual development. We need each other to assure the viability of our current lives, the viability of our futures.

For most of us, most of the time, our individual needs are met, our problems are resolved, our vulnerabilities are managed. This happens with the help and support of family, friends, neighbors, and our communities. If we need services beyond friends and family, we simply make arrangements to assure the services we require are available when we need them, using personal or other resources readily available to us. These services range from spiritual guidance to legal counsel, from relationship advice to educational services, from health care to recreational opportunities. Most people successfully arrange to have their needs met, their problems resolved, their vulnerabilities managed.

For some of us, some of the time, life is a much less doable proposition. We do not have or cannot access adequate family, friend, neighbor, and community supports and resources to meet our needs. “The strength of the primary supports of family and neighborhood is essential if individuals are to cope with a complex society. They are the basic linkages of one person to another.” (Burger & Youkeles, 2008, p. 7) We cannot tap into these special opportunities others use to help resolve their individual problems. We do not have adequate help with managing the threats and potential harm to which we are vulnerable. We are, for whatever reason, left to go it alone.

This brings us to one of the fundamental questions born from our humanity. If I take care of me and mine, why can’t everyone else? This in turn leads to a second question. Even if there are valid reasons why they can’t take care of themselves and their families, why should I use any of my time, energy, and personal resources to do it for them?

Many years ago, my grandmother told me the good Lord put some of us here to take care of the rest of us. She smiled and added the good news for all of us is we get to take turns being taken care of and being the one who takes care. In her gentle way, she added I should always pay attention to which turn I am taking and then make it as easy as possible for the person taking the other turn. This is why we need human services. Some of us need to take care of the rest of us, so we provide human services to assure everyone has an opportunity to take turns. It is our way of being sure grandmother’s wisdom is not lost.

In addition to our humanity and moral values, there are more self-serving reasons for assuring the availability of human services. They are in the interest of community stability, security, and long-term success. This is true whether the community of interest is a unit of government, a church, or other organizational entity. To the extent any member of the community is struggling to meet his (or her) needs, to resolve his problems, to avoid the jeopardy of unmanaged vulnerabilities, the community itself is struggling, is less than it has the potential to be. “The social goods produced through the human services sector strengthen individuals, families, organizations, and communities through the services provided in health and mental health care, education, social welfare, criminal justice, and many other fields of practice. The public good that is generated by a society then is inextricably connected to the human services delivery system.” (Manning, 2003, p. 3-4)

We see human services are a special instance of services more generally. Some of us are unable to adequately and independently cope with the myriad of life issues interfering with and jeopardizing our well being. We do not have the personal resources and opportunities others have available to them to cope with day to day stresses and challenges. Quite simply, human services are our best effort to assure others have access to the resources and opportunities they need to cope with the needs, problems, and vulnerabilities in their lives when they are unable to access those resources and opportunities on their own. (For interesting historical perspectives on help, people being helped, and helpers, see Mehr & Kanwischer, 2004, p. 25-45 and Woodside & McClam, 2009, p. 27-59.)

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