New York City’s nonprofit sector includes more than 35,000 organizations that employ more than half a million New Yorkers. At the New York Foundling, we employ over a thousand New Yorkers who serve more than 30,000 kids 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 early childhood education to adult education and senior services, and health care to economic empowerment.
Over the last two years, the City of New York has relied heavily on community-based nonprofits — both in their ability to be nimble and flexible, and to leverage their deep understanding of hard-hit communities’ needs in real time. We can both say this from nearly 20 years of combined leadership roles in city government.
New Yorkers may not realize that municipal government actually doesn’t provide many direct services. Instead, city agencies develop programs and then contract with nonprofits to deliver at the community level. Contracted nonprofits rely on government funding, with contract revenue representing upwards of 90% of many budgets. To put it simply: The city needs these nonprofits just as much as these nonprofits need the city. And without our hardworking and highly-skilled team members- our counselors, our health workers, our classroom teachers and aides — nonprofits and the city have no ability to deliver. Humans are of course at the core of human services.
As we work hand-in-hand with city government to rebuild our communities from the ground up, we’re faced with a dwindling human and social services workforce, with few tools left to recruit and retain these essential staff. We know without a doubt that the mayor and City Council understand the importance of the nonprofit sector, which is why we are urgently requesting a significant investment to increase the wages of the frontline staff. We are hopeful that the upcoming city budget will include an investment in the social services workforce, but if we want to ensure economic security for our people and address the recruitment and retention challenge, we will need a greater investment in the long run and we need funding baselined permanently in the city’s budget.
Understanding what’s at stake is key to fighting for what we deserve. We’ll give you an example from one of the 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 of kids in New York City aged 14-24, only 42% of kids who sought mental health support in the last 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 isn’t able to fill. Through satellite clinics and staffing school support teams, we assist a student population of about 4,000 kids at 11 different schools across Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan. At our schools, a full-time clinician responds to each referral, connecting students with the services and resources they need in a timely fashion. We don’t have a waitlist, and we don’t 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 added strain on the city’s already limited resources, while we are experiencing an urgent mental health crisis.
We face a similar dilemma at Union Settlement. For 127 years, East Harlem residents have relied on us to provide critical support and services to a large immigrant and historically underserved community. Our community is rich with culture, diversity and pride. But it is also carrying day-to-day struggles that are reflective of so many communities of color. Poverty has become a way of life — with 34% of East Harlem residents living in poverty, more than twice the number citywide.
Union Settlement is one of the larger employers in East Harlem; more than one-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 pathway for residents to build financial security and break generational cycles of poverty.
But this opportunity only exists if we pay at least a living wage. With growing inflation and compressed salaries, our workforce is facing an increasingly steeper climb to build a better future for themselves and their families.
Wage increases for the social services workforce in New York City is a critical step toward wage equity and financial stability. At the systemic level, wage equity is the first step in making sure all of our communities are supported and safe as we rebuild and revitalize the city. At the individual level, wage increases are also the difference between poverty and financial security for much of our workforce. It’s time to act now.
Hartzog is CEO and president of the New York Foundling, and Geiling is CEO of Union Settlement.