Ever since the Great Depression overwhelmed the global economy in the 1930s and forced most of the major democracies to reexamine their methods of providing a social safety net to their populations, various constituencies have been at war over just how to pay for it. Here in the US, that debate began with the New Deal programs of Franklin Roosevelt, ran through Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs in the 1960s, and continues to this day.
Today, however, as federal deficits grow and the national debt spirals into multiple trillions of dollars – it seems that those who argue in favor of cutting or eliminating such social programs are winning the argument. Projections of the federal budget reveal that social spending is on the decline as a share of GDP, which is a trend set to continue until at least the year 2029. That means that social welfare agencies at all levels, from federal to local, are going to have to start learning to do more with less.
One thing that they have going for them is a raft of new technologies that are helping to streamline social services operations, helping agencies to spend more of their budgets helping people and less on overhead. Here's an overview of some of the ways that's happening.
Social Success in an Unexpected Place
If you're familiar with Sonoma County in California, you likely know it to be a beautiful place dotted with vineyards and picturesque coastal views. It isn't without problems, however. Although going unseen by outsiders, the county does have one of the largest homeless populations of any county of its type nationwide. That problem was magnified by a series of wildfires beginning in 2017, which destroyed homes throughout the region and created even more vulnerable populations.
The county, for its part, knew that their existing siloed data approach to social services couldn't hope to cope with the scale of the problems, so they turned to IBM to build a unified data system based on its IBM Health and Human Services Connect 360 platform. It was intended to deliver Watson-powered insights to drive personalized services and support to the citizens that need it most. The initial version of the system produced insights into 90,000 individual case files, allowing workers to take a more proactive approach to provisioning services by reaching out to those in the most need.
Expanding Use of Existing Programs
It is an unfortunate reality that many locales that have comprehensive social services programs still have difficulty getting those eligible to participate in them. Sometimes, that's a matter of a perceived social stigma associated with the programs, and in other cases, it's a simple lack of awareness of what's available. In Illinois, however, one program faced a very different problem: an application backlog that rendered it ineffective.
The program, which extends tax credits to companies that hire individuals from certain populations, such as veterans, those receiving public assistance, and ex-felons, had no shortage of businesses willing to take advantage of it. With an application backlog that stretched to as long as several years, however, there was no way for them to do so. That's when the state government turned to B2B data firm Adeptia for help. Together, they built an automated system to accept and process tax credit applications using the firm's data integration suite – a system that eliminated the entire backlog in a few days and now processes most applications in under a minute. The automation has given the Illinois Department of Employment Security the ability to handle up to ten times the previous workload with no increase in staff.
Doing More Good
By overhauling the way that governments provide services and support for those in need, it should be possible to both minimize costs and increase participation rates. To those in the social services field, that's as close to finding a holy grail as one could hope. It's also becoming possible while budgetary constraints are making things considerably harder at all levels of government – so it couldn't be coming at a more opportune time. With any luck, technology should let us do more good for more people while meeting our fiscal goals – and we'll all be better off for that.