New York City’s nonprofit sector includes more than 35,000 organizations that employ more than half a million New Yorkers. At New York Foundling, we employ over a thousand New Yorkers, serving more than 30,000 children and families across the city and Rockland County. At Union Settlement, we employ 350 team members who annually serve more than 10,000 children, teens and seniors through dozens of programs ranging from preschool education to adult education and senior services and health care to financial empowerment.
Over the past two years, New York City has relied heavily on community-based nonprofits – both in their ability to be agile and flexible and to leverage their deep understanding of the needs of hard-hit communities in real time. We can both say this from almost 20 years of combined leadership roles in city government.
New Yorkers may not be aware that municipal authorities do not actually provide many direct services. Instead, city agencies develop programs and then enter into contracts with nonprofits to deliver at the community level. Contracted non-profit organizations rely on public funding, with contract revenue representing up to 90% of many budgets. To put it simply: the city needs these nonprofits as much as these nonprofits need the city. And without our hard-working and highly qualified team members – our advisors, our health professionals, our class teachers and helpers – non-profit organizations and the city have no ability to deliver. Humans are, of course, the core of human services.
As we work hand in hand with the city government to rebuild our communities from scratch, we face a dwindling human and social services workforce, with few tools left to recruit and retain these important employees. We know without a doubt that the mayor and city council understand the importance of the non-profit sector, which is why we urgently call for a significant investment to increase the salaries of frontline staff. We hope that the forthcoming city budget will include an investment in the social administration workforce, but if we want to ensure financial security for our people and address the recruitment and retention challenge, we need a larger investment in the long run, and we have need funding set out in the city budget.
Understanding what is at stake is the key to fighting for what we deserve. We give you an example from one of Foundling’s core services: mental health care. It’s no secret that we’re dealing with an alarming mental health crisis in New York. According to a recent poll among children in New York City aged 14-24, only 42% of children seeking mental health support in the past year actually received it. Less than half.
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Initiatives like our school-based mental health program seek to bridge the gaps that the city just is unable to fill. Through satellite clinics and staff school support teams, we help a student population of about 4,000 children at 11 different schools across Queens, Bronx and Manhattan. At our schools, a full-time clinician responds to each referral and connects students with the services and resources they need in a timely manner. We do not have a waiting list and we do not send families around in circles.
Our program staff and clinicians are our entire program. Without them, it’s just an idea. And without them, you have 4,000 children putting extra pressure on the city’s already limited resources while we experience an acute mental crisis.
We face a similar dilemma at Union Settlement. For 127 years, the residents of East Harlem have trusted us to provide critical support and services to a large immigrant and historically underserved community. Our society is rich in culture, diversity and pride. But it also carries on everyday battles that reflect so many color communities. Poverty has become a way of life – with 34% of East Harlem’s people living in poverty more than doubling the number in the entire city.
Union Settlement is one of the larger employers in East Harlem; more than a third of our workforce lives in the local community. Our staff grew up in our programs, they send their children to our early childhood centers, and their parents rely on our daily meal deliveries to stay healthy and nourished. Investing in our Union Settlement workforce is a direct investment in East Harlem and a way for residents to build economic security and break generation cycles of poverty.
But this option only exists if we at least pay a living wage. With rising inflation and compressed wages, our workforce is facing an increasingly steep increase in building a better future for themselves and their families.
Wage increases for the New York City social workforce are a critical step toward profitability and financial stability. At the systemic level, profitability is the first step in ensuring that all of our communities are supported and secure while we rebuild and revitalize the city. At the individual level, wage increases are also the difference between poverty and economic security for a large part of our workforce. It’s time to act now.
Hartzog is the CEO and president of the New York Foundling, and Geiling is the CEO of the Union Settlement.