Reframing newsletter

Federal Proposal Mirrors Misperceptions of Human Services

September 6, 2018

White House south lawn with sun fading behindLawmakers, Ask Human-Service Experts About New Approaches on Federal Programs,” an opinion column by National Human Services Assembly CEO Lee Sherman in the August 15, 2018 issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, explains how parts of the Administration’s June proposal, “Delivering Government Solutions in the 21st Century,” reflect, and would reinforce, public misperceptions of human services.

In particular, Sherman notes that structural changes such as consolidating and renaming agencies and programs—including a return to the term “welfare” that evokes the dynamic of “givers” and “takers”—would entrench negative stereotypes about human services and those who need them, with a cascading effect of reduced public support and funding. These proposed policies demonstrate how ingrained, inaccurate mental models common among the general public are guiding policy conversations.

“The administration’s proposal to change the name of federal departments and consolidate agencies would undermine Americans’ shared goals to build vibrant communities and provide meaningful opportunities for everyone to contribute to our communities’ well-being. The effect of many of the proposed changes would weaken public support for the vital work of human-service organizations, harming all of us.”

Department of Health and Human Services Seal, blue and yellowAt the same time, as readers know, the National Reframing Initiative, partners and other organizations in the nonprofit sector have made progress in recent years bridging gaps in the public’s understanding of what human services are, why people need support and how society benefits, all of which affect engagement, support, and action. Sherman amplifies these efforts by using reframing language and strategies in his column, including leading with well-being, describing the full breadth of human service offerings, including prevention and advocacy, emphasizing the life cycle, and noting benefits to society as a whole.

“Replacing ‘human services’ with the word ‘welfare’ reduces human services to its most narrow stereotype—that of emergency-only food or monetary donations—rather than showing the diverse and vast scope of human services available to all Americans at every stage of life.”

To counter proposals that enshrine inaccurate views of human services in policy, Sherman recommends that policymakers base recommendations on research showing what works to promote well-being (specific programs such as SNAP and community-based efforts) and what doesn’t (proposed work requirements) and discuss human service needs and impact supporting society with government and non-profit experts who have broad and deep experience with these topics. This kind of collaboration would go a long way to dispelling erroneous notions and closing the gap between experts’ and public knowledge about human services.

The full piece is available on The Chronicle of Philanthropy site. The National Assembly also commented on the proposal after its June release. Additionally, a July Reframing Network Newsletter advised human service organizations responding to the proposal to integrate reframing strategies—Build Well-Being, Promote Explanation Over Crisis and Be Consistent—that are proven to increase the public’s knowledge of the full scope and value of human services.

Please share with us any communications your organization released concerning the Administration’s proposal by emailing them to Bridget Gavaghan, Director, National Reframing Initiative at



The Science of What Makes People Care,” by Ann Christiano and Annie Neimand, in the Fall 2018 issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review offers communications principles derived from social science research to enhance the social sector’s ability to prompt audiences—by appealing to their identities and values—to alter beliefs and behaviors. The recommendations offered align nicely with the research underpinning the National Reframing Initiative. We encourage you to read the piece for some great insights on how to more effectively leverage social science when communicating with the public.