Searching for the System Stories

11 February 2019

In my original blog “where are the system stories?” I highlighted the many stories of personal problems and success that are reported in impact reports within the social service sector.  These personal stories, be it homelessness, unemployment, or addiction are usually told without a clear line of sight between the personal problem and larger systemic issues.  This time I will attempt to answer the question of why stories of structural or systemic factors do not exist alongside the personal ones.

When it comes to the subject of root causes, most would agree that the root causes of poverty are a mix of individual and systemic problems.  Authors Stephen Gaetz and Erin Dej narrow down the causes of homeless to a combination of three factors in their report A New Direction: A Framework for Homelessness Prevention (2017) to, a) structural factors, b) system failures and c) individual and relational factors.  In response to a comment I posted to the authors about individual factors actually being characterized as systemic, the author who responded would argue that individual/relational factors (such as crisis-intimate partner violence, and housing insecurity) generally are related to structural or systemic factors, however this is not always the case when it comes to mental illness and addictions.  So, it’s reasonable to assume that the root causes of poverty are a combination of systemic and individual factors, however, I would argue that mental illness including trauma and addiction have caused many service providers to adopt a medicalized approach, and this has overshadowed the systemic contributors.  This, and other reasons related to outcome reporting and funding models will attempt to answer my original question, where are the system stories?

Funders, donors, and the community at large all want to hear about how people are being helped, and it is much easier to report on a personal success story than to attempt to explain how that person’s personal problem is actually the result of a systemic failure, and how your organization is tackling that systemic problem.  First of all, most funders expect successful outcomes in a short period of time, this is possible when you are helping people out of a crisis, but when we start to look at prevention approaches it takes a considerable amount of time to see the benefits, years, decades maybe. It becomes incredibly difficult to find funders who are able to wait for those success stories.  When a person is facing eviction, unemployment, or an unexpected medical cost it is up to the frontline agencies to provide much-needed crisis support, usually in the form of third-party money or actual goods.   Although these organizations are more than likely aware of the affordable housing crisis, the current labor market, and government health benefits, they are confined within the limits of their funding to address only the individual circumstances.  Assist with rent payment, provide temporary shelter, or help with resume development.  In turn, these organizations report that they were successful in achieving their objectives and subsequently receive more funding.  All the while the system stories continue to go unaddressed and unreported.

There is another reason why service providers do not report system stories.  Problems such as housing insecurity, unemployment, or poor health often manifest into symptoms of mental illness and, in the absence of healthy coping mechanisms, addiction.  Mental illness and addiction tend to dominate the scene for frontline service providers and understandably has led to more clinical, more individual responses to problems of poverty.  Unfortunately, this opens up the possibility that scarce resources are overwhelmingly going towards clinical treatments, leaving very little left to go towards the treatment of systemic change.  Not having a place to call home, nutritious food to eat, or enough money to pay your medical expenses can lead to feelings of depression and despair, but these feelings are often perceived by service providers as pathological disorders.  More often it’s the people being treated, and with so much attention to personal problems of mental illness and addiction, it’s easy to see how the system stories are forgotten.

A fragmented social system, inadequate wages, precarious employment, expensive childcare, and income inequality are concerning; however, these are not the only systemic contributors to poverty. Racism, discrimination and other forms of oppression also need our attention.  There are solutions, flexible funding models to fund strategies for these long term (and large scale) problems, greater capacity to evaluate systemic change, and making room to influence public policy.  Governments are looking for reliable partners, and frontline organizations have valuable insight into many social problems.  These solutions can enable more social service organizations to tackle systemic change and start telling those system stories.  For more information about evaluating system change refer to the enough for all evaluation for 2017, and check out A Framework for Evaluating Systems Change by the Tamarack Institute.

[1] YMCA Canada. Be H.I.P.P have influence on public policy. Toronto, ON.