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Allard The number of working Americans seeking aid from local social-service organizations is rising fast in cities and towns across the country.

But for a growing share of Americans, help may not be available because of cutbacks in government and private spending on social services and because the social-service system has not adapted well to the 21st century.

As a result, social-service providers have a hard time responding to changes in the geography of poverty, adopting technologies that can increase efficiency, and pursuing collaborative efforts that can improve results.

Perhaps more worrisome, cutbacks in government aid are putting a terrible strain on social-service organizations, causing many to shut down, reduce caseloads, or eliminate important programs.

Given the severity of the downturn ahead, we need our nonprofit organizations to be ready to handle the increases in the demand they will face­ — we cannot keep weakening them.

After all, if the country is to emerge fully from this downturn, we need to make services available that will allow poor families to deal with their economic troubles, find work, and increase their earnings so they may contribute to the recovery.

To fix the problems in our social-service system, we need to understand just what types of assistance are available, where, and to whom.

In research I conducted for my book Out of Reach: Place, Poverty, and the New American Welfare State (Yale University Press), I collected data from nearly 1,500 government and nonprofit social-service organizations in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, and tried to figure out how poor people were affected in the last national economic downturn, the recession that swept the country in 2001.

The news media typically focus on the $80-billion in aid each year that provides cash assistance to the needy through food stamps, welfare checks, and the earnedincome tax credit.

But nonprofit organizations understand that a vital part of the safety net for low-income people comes through the more than $150-billion in private and government aid spent on job training, education, child care, mental-health treatment, and a range of other services that help poor people achieve greater well being.

In many cases, government offers grants and contracts to charities that provide services to the needy.

But social-service charities are not located in all the places where people need help.