07/12/2013 05:14 pm ET Updated Sep 11, 2013

Something Is Dying

A significant part of the fabric of community is in jeopardy, and few are aware of it.

There are the random reports in the media, but they look like isolated incidents. A 130-year-old child care agency closes in Chicago. A Head Start agency closes in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Lutheran Social Services shuts down some of its facilities in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

And it's not just closures. Cuts in social service programs in communities across the country are not news anymore. Cuts are that commonplace -- just do a web search for "social services cut" and you'll see what I mean.

Sure, there are instances of poor management and not keeping up with the times but, more often than not, a social service program or agency is cut because the government reduced or eliminated funding. The paradox is that citizens decry government spending without realizing that it is agencies in their own communities, which they value, that are being cut. Examples? Sure. What about before and after school care, feeding programs for older adults, work readiness services for people with disabilities, and on and on.

Human services are an integral part of the fabric of our community, both at the local and the national level. And they are not just for "those other people;" they are for all of us. Who doesn't have a relative, a friend, or a co-worker who has struggled in one way or another? Most of us have relatives or friends who have disabilities or other conditions -- including age! -- that cause them to need help or a hand up. And we have children, grandchildren, neighbor-children who need safe and structured things to do when not in school. The faith-based and community-based agencies for children and youth, families, older adults, and people with disabilities and health issues are as much a part of your community and mine as are schools, hospitals, and fire stations.

There is one distinction, though. While not universal, many of the social services that undergird the people-caring aspects of our communities are more likely to be provided by nonprofit organizations that "look" like charities. They are charities in the sense that they receive charitable contributions and they meet the provisions of law that grant nonprofit status, but government is often a major, if not the major, source of funding for what they do. It is as though, as a society, we said, well, we could have the private sector do this but there is no profit in it. We could have government do it but we would rather have the programs in the hands of community members than a government bureaucracy. So, let's have community-based nonprofit agencies deliver the social services we need.

That model has worked quite well for over a century and is, in fact, one of our great "exports." That is, developing and formerly communist countries look to the U.S. model as they are establishing their own nonprofit infrastructure organizations. And sometimes our very "brands" are crossing oceans -- United Way, 4-H, Big Brothers Big Sisters, among others.

The point is, we need to be aware of and tend to the social services and other nonprofit threads of our communities. Together they are strong and warp and weave with other crucial elements of the fabric that comprises community. Without our attention, however, those threads can weaken. Needs unmet and human potential unfulfilled will result, weakening the fabric further.