2-1-1 should be available to all

By Brian Gallagher It’s instinctive: In a life-or-death situation, dial 9-1-1. But who do Americans call when they need help, but do not need an ambulance, or a fire truck? Who did the victims of the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes call when they were left stranded without housing, food or running water? What if you could easily access every social-service agency in your community with just one phone call? Millions of Americans already know the answer – 2-1-1, a three-digit dialing system like 4-1-1 and 9-1-1 — that connects people with community services, government agencies and information about volunteer opportunities. 2-1-1 assists communities in coordinating crisis and disaster response, and provides referrals to human-service organizations for everyday needs such as child care, job training, and rent assistance. Additionally, 2-1-1 connects potential volunteers with organizations that match their interests. One call center’s referrals, for example, facilitated nearly 65,000 volunteer hours to dozens of local social service agencies. Based on an average rate of just over $17/hour, this time is valued at over $1 million for just one call center. Access to important government and community services is an obvious benefit, but 2-1-1 will also save millions in taxpayer dollars. A cost-benefit analysis, commissioned by United Way of America and completed by the University of Texas at Austin, finds that national usage of 2-1-1 would provide $1.1 billion in net value to society over the next 10 years. Ninety-three percent of 2-1-1 callers said they easily received useful information to find help, and 97 percent said they would use 2-1-1 again. Currently, only 62 percent of the U.S. population can access 2-1-1. A national system would improve access to services in preparation for and in response to major disasters and crises, and consolidate access to government information and community organizations. A service this important should be available to everyone. Congress is working to provide funding that would authorize $150 million to implement and sustain 2-1-1 nationwide through the “Calling for 2-1-1 Act,” a measure that enjoys broad bi-partisan support. 2-1-1 impacts the lives of every person in a community. Will 2-1-1 come to benefit all Americans sooner rather than later? You make the call.

Brian Gallagher is the president and CEO of United Way of America in Alexandria, Va

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