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Safety Net for Sale: The Dangers of Privatizing Social Services

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From the Great Depression to the Great Society and beyond, one of the core missions of government has been to provide a safety net for the poor and vulnerable. Government programs have helped families avoid major hardships, providing cash assistance and subsidizing food purchases and medical care, and have also encouraged self-sufficiency through counseling, job training and other services.

In the past decade there has been an aggressive effort to privatize much of this safety net, shifting responsibility for programs to nongovernment entities. Privatization has been attempted in cash assistance, child welfare services, child support collection, and job training and placement programs. Contractors have included large and small for-profit firms, as well as non-profit organizations.

The stated goal of privatization has usually been to reduce costs and improve services. The result has often been quite the opposite. The history of privatized social services is replete with cost overruns and service breakdowns. Meanwhile, critical decisions affecting our society’s most vulnerable citizens have increasingly been based on short-term private incentives rather than long-term public interests.

AFSCME and its members embrace the goal of providing cost-effective, high-quality public services. When public sector managers and their employees work together toward this goal, service recipients, workers and taxpayers benefit, as numerous models of public sector innovation indicate. Public employers should treat workers as assets to develop, not costs to cut.