Recent economic news is striking a tone we haven’t heard in quite some time: optimism.
Gas prices have dropped, wages for low-income workers have risen and inflation has finally slowed. But while this news is certainly heartening, real progress can’t be measured by national trends alone. It’s critical that we see this growth spread beyond big cities and traditional economic hubs to the small towns and marginalized communities that have been historically left behind. As the CEO of United Way, the largest community-based organization in the world, everything we do is rooted in the belief that our country is only as strong as the individual communities that make it up. And despite the overall progress made, too many communities are still struggling to access the basic services they need — from healthcare and housing to emergency services and disaster response.
Thankfully, Congress has an unprecedented opportunity to change that. The Human-services Emergency Logistics Program (HELP) Act is a bipartisan, bicameral bill that would connect vulnerable families and individuals to the local resources they need, ensuring all communities have an equal opportunity to thrive. The HELP Act, which was introduced by Sens. Bob Casey (D-Penn.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) in the Senate and Congressmen Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA-01) and Brian Higgins (D-NY) in the House, specifically provides capacity-building resources to build out 211, the nation’s leading information and referral system for critical human services, and 988, the national suicide prevention hotline. In 2000, the Federal Communications Commission designated 211 as the official national dialing code for human services, and there are currently over 220 call centers operating 211 systems in all 50 states.
The system works. Last year, 211 connected over 18 million individuals across the country to critical community services for housing, utility assistance, food support, mental health services, emergency and disaster response and more, and in 2021, over 21 million people were served by 211 — the most we have ever seen in one year.
In short, 211 is a lifeline for millions of our neighbors who need help.
The HELP Act has the ability to amplify this impact. The 211 Network currently operates across the country with almost no direct federal resources. Even so, 211s have leveraged philanthropic donations to expand their ability to serve communities, offering services in 180 languages as well as via chat, text and email. They have served as the official helpline for 31 states during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as during natural disasters and other emergency events.
With the capacity-building resources included in the HELP Act, 211s would greatly expand their ability to serve even more people, in more ways, while keeping wait times low. Critically, the bill also encourages the diversion of non-emergency calls from 911 to 211 and 988, allowing people to receive the direct help they need when their situations do not call for law enforcement intervention but still require the ease of a three-digit call.
Supporting 211 is also a smart investment that will save money in the long run. Free human services referral systems both take strain away from emergency officials and save federal, state and local dollars by providing human-centered services to individuals and families that are in crisis. That allows folks to get back on their feet more quickly by connecting them not only to available federal social service resources but to state, local and non-governmental programs as well.
The social and mental health supports provided by the HELP Act are the reason why, despite a deeply divided Congress, this bill has earned bipartisan support in both the House and Senate. The HELP Act is an opportunity for Congress to show what we know so well at the United Way: communities are the cornerstone of society.
Our country is strong only when all communities are strong — the HELP ACT is the best way to make that happen.
Angela F. Williams is president and CEO of United Way Worldwide, the world’s largest privately funded nonprofit. A veteran and former federal prosecutor, Williams previously was president and CEO of Easterseals, the nation’s leading nonprofit provider of life-changing disability services, and led as an executive vice president, general counsel, and chief administration officer at the YMCA of the USA.
TAGS 211 988 HELP ACT