From the Desk of the Executive Director
"Déjá Vu All Over Again" for Child Care
Published October 29, 2013 in the Huffington Post
Putting an End to the Stop-and-Frisk Debate
Published August 6, 2013 in the Huffington Post
Abstinence-Only is Bound to Fail
Published August 6, 2012 in the New York Daily News
When Social Work is a Felony
Published January 29, 2012 in the New York Daily News
N.Y.C.'s Unfair New Policy Underpays Nonprofits for the Services They Provide
Published August 29, 2011 in The New York Daily News
Anti-Government Rhetoric? Caveat Emptor
Published November 12, 2010 in Caribbean Life
Piece by piece, the Bloomberg administration is slowly dismantling a core government program that for over two decades has benefited New York City taxpayers, non-profit social service organizations, and children and families in need. The next girder is scheduled to fall at the end of this week, and it is high time to stop the demolition and start rebuilding.
The program at issue, started in the 1980s, revolutionized the way New York City provides insurance for vital social services such as child care, afterschool and senior programs.
Every year, the City spends billions of dollars contracting with hundreds of non-profits to provide these services. These non-profits must have general liability, workers' compensation and other types of insurance, but unfortunately are too small to bargain effectively with insurers, and therefore pay very high rates. Insurance is part of the cost of providing these City-funded services, and so taxpayers end up bearing these costs.
This system began to unravel about 30 years ago, when child care providers saw their insurance costs become prohibitively expensive, and the City saw an increasing percentage of its funds being used for insurance rather than programming.
The City's response was both bold and comprehensive. Rather than having each organization negotiate individually with private insurers, the City recognized that it could centralize the process and use its bargaining power to negotiate lower rates with insurers, or even could "self-insure" and skip the insurers completely.
The City therefore set up a new Central Insurance Program, which at first provided coverage just for day care centers, but then was quickly expanded to include youth programs, home attendant programs and other City-funded services. The City also established a special risk management unit to analyze loss claims, identify trends, and implement safety improvements to reduce similar claims in the future.
The program was such as spectacular success, and saved so much money, that in 1994 Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government's bestowed its "Innovations in American Government" award to the City for its Central Insurance Program. It was a win-win-win for the City, the non-profits and the taxpayers.
Unfortunately, this wonderful cost-saving program is slowly being shut down. Non-profits with contracts with the Department for the Aging and several other agencies have already been removed from the program and required to obtain their own insurance in the private market. Next to go are the non-profit child care providers, which will be dropped from the system on November 1, 2013.
It is particularly surprising that this dismantling is being conducted by the Bloomberg Administration, which has been at the forefront of data-driven government innovation and efficiency over the past twelve years. Indeed, if it did not already exist, the Central Insurance Program -- which is based on consolidating functions and using market power to drive down costs -- is exactly the type of innovation that the Bloomberg administration would have created.
To its credit, New York City is trying to soften the blow by using the money it currently spends on insurance coverage to increase payments to the child care providers, and this will provide some funding to cover the cost of replacement coverage.
But the Central Insurance Program's central conceit was that the City's purchasing power and self-insurance capacity allows it to spend less than all the child care providers would spend individually. So, by definition, the amount of money the providers receive will be insufficient to purchase equivalent coverage in the market.
For Union Settlement Association, the nonprofit that I oversee here in East Harlem, the increased reimbursements will be only about 75 percent of the increased costs, and we will have to raise another $30,000 to make up the difference. This is just another of a series of steps by government to shift costs to non-profits, seemingly based on the assumption that these organizations can simply turn to their donors to cover the increases. We can't.
But the worst losses will not be monetary.
Some non-profit child care providers are barely surviving now, will not be able to afford the increased insurance costs, and may have to close. If others cannot secure coverage by November 1, they will be shut down by the City, which rightly does not want children cared for in facilities that have noinsurance. What will happen to those children? And to their parents, many of whom rely upon the child care to allow them to work?
In short, this de-innovative action of closing the Central Insurance Program will not save the City any money, will impose additional costs on non-profits, and will place low-income children and parents at risk. A lose-lose-lose.
The only winner will be the insurance companies, which will once again reap the benefits of a decentralized insurance purchasing system.
And in the future, when insurance costs predictably rise, child care providers will inevitably ask the City to increase their reimbursement rates, imposing new costs on our taxpayers.
At that point, some bright staffer in City Hall will suggest: "Why don't we save money by centralizing all these insurance costs!" As Yogi Berra famously said, it will be "déjà vu all over again."
We don't need to get to that point. Hopefully our next Mayor will be as innovative and data-driven as the current one, and will recognize the Central Insurance Program as one worth saving. Or maybe the current one will.
My October 29, 2013, op-ed posted here discussed the hardships caused by New York City's decision -- scheduled to be implemented on November 1, 2013 -- to terminate all general liability, worker's compensation, disability and fidelity bond insurance coverage for City-subsidized child care providers, and to impose those costs on the providers.
On October 31, the Administration for Children's Services (ACS) announced that it was delaying the implementation date until December 1, 2013, but just for the organizations that had not already obtained the required insurance. This postponement clearly confirmed, as noted in the op-ed, that ACS's decision to shift the insurance costs to the providers would have an adverse impact on parents and children. Indeed, the ACS memo states that the delay was necessary to "avoid a disruption of services to New York City's children and families."
Unfortunately, this 30-day delay only applies to a limited number of child care agencies, and does not address the underlying problem. A non-profit child care provider that could not afford the insurance on November 1 won't magically be able to afford the insurance on December 1, and so the specter of ACS forcing the shut-down of multiple centers (and leaving parents and children without services) still looms.
Putting an End to the Stop-and-Frisk Debate
Published August 6, 2013 in the Huffington Post
by David Nocenti
The "not guilty" verdict in the Trayvon Martin case has further heightened the ongoing debate about the NYPD's stop-and-frisk practices, because of the clear parallels between how young men of color are viewed and treated.
Unfortunately, watching the stop-and-frisk debate is like watching two sides arguing in different languages. Opponents of the practice assert that there are too many stop-and-frisks, many of which are conducted unconstitutionally. Proponents respond that stop-and-frisk practices reduce crime. Each side is making its own points to its own audience, but neither is communicating with the other, and the clear middle ground is never discussed. And although the decibel level of the debate would make you think otherwise, most of the basic facts are not in dispute.
First, stop-and-frisk practices reduce crime. If you think that you are likely to be stopped and frisked at any time, you will be less likely to carry a knife or a gun, and less likely to carry drugs that you just bought, or intend to sell.
Second, there are far too many stop-and-frisks occurring in New York City. From 2002 to 2012, the number of stop-and-frisks increased almost 550 percent, from 97,296 to 532,911. The vast majority of these stops occurred in minority communities, such as in East Harlem where my organization is located, which had the most stop-and-frisks in Manhattan.
Third, NYPD statistics make clear that a significant number of frisks are being conducted unconstitutionally. I say "frisks" rather than "stop-and-frisks," because the "stop" and the "frisk" are two different acts. Indeed, the term "frisk" itself can mean either of two things, each with its own constitutional requirements.
The police can conduct a "pat down" frisk of the individual's outer clothing only if the officer has "reasonable suspicion" that the individual is armed and dangerous, but weapons are found in less than 2 percent of the frisks. A full search, which includes emptying the individual's pockets, is permitted only if the officer has "probable cause" to believe that the individual can be arrested for committing a crime, but only about 12 percent of frisks result in arrests. If the police actually had a constitutional basis for each frisk, more guns would be recovered and more individuals would be arrested.
Indeed, if you ask police officers about the circumstances in which they conduct stop-and-frisks, they will admit that they frisk people without sufficient cause. For example, if the police see several known members of a youth gang walking towards the territory of another gang, they will be stopped and frisked. Not because the officers have the constitutional right to do so (e.g., reasonable suspicion to believe the individuals are armed), but because based on their experience, they know it is possible that a crime will be committed. Police officers are trained to stop crime, and this is one way they do so.
Which brings us to another undeniable fact in the stop-and-frisk debate: The vast majority of police officers are dedicated, well-intentioned public servants who put their lives on the line every day, and the overwhelming majority of their frisks -- both the constitutional ones and the unconstitutional ones -- are intended solely to protect the public, and themselves.
This, of course, is not the viewpoint of those being stopped and frisked -- particularly those who have been stopped and frisked repeatedly and unconstitutionally. And since nine out of 10 persons stopped and frisked are persons of color, the view that these stop-and-frisks are being conducted based on race is inevitable and understandable -- as is the outrage of the minority youth who are subjected to hundreds of thousands of frisks each year.
This complete disconnect -- police officers frisking individuals in an effort to protect the public, and members of minority communities believing that they have been frisked for racist reasons -- is what leads to the corrosive relationship that currently exists between the police and minority communities. Ironically, the overuse of stop-and-frisks as a police tactic has sown a distrust of the police that makes reducing crime even harder, because so many individuals do not trust the police enough to provide information they have about crimes.
And it has also led to efforts to "solve" the problem through legislation, such as the two "stop-and-frisk bills" that the mayor recently vetoed, but which are expected to become law when the City Council overrides prior to the August 22 deadline. The first bill (Intro. 1079) is often discussed as creating an 'independent inspector general" to investigate the NYPD, but it does nothing of the sort, and instead simply sets forth explicitly powers that the NYC Commissioner of Investigation already has with respect to the NYPD. The second bill (Intro. 1080) authorizes any individual to sue the NYPD or any police officer who allegedly engages in "bias-based profiling." The bills will neither reduce the number of stop-and-frisks, nor have an impact on crime rates.
The real tragedy is that virtually everyone agrees that the best way to reduce crime and abide by the constitution is not through massive numbers of stop-and-frisks that turn the community against the police, but through true "community policing" in which the police officers become a part of the community, and local residents work with the officers to prevent crimes from occurring and help solve the crimes that do occur. This means encouraging all police officers to attend community events, having officers explain to local residents what they do and why, investing in youth programs as an alternative to gangs, re-building the community's trust in our officers, and offering these officers the recognition they deserve.
The incoming mayor and his or her Police Commissioner -- whoever that might be -- would do well to focus on both community protection and community engagement, because the two are inextricably linked.
Published August 23, 2012 in the New York Nonprofit Press
by David Nocenti
Much has been written over the past year about “The 99%” and the Occupy Wall Street movement. But perhaps nothing crystallizes our societal divide better than the main auction room at Sotheby’s that one night in May, with bidders in their seats and on the phone, and The Scream sitting silently on an easel, looking on.
The minimum bid for the painting was $50 million, and the Sotheby’s press release stated that eight bidders “jumped in” at that price, all willing to pay at least that amount for the right to own this iconic work of art. One was successful. Seven were not.
Do the math. These seven patrons of the arts who “lost” the opportunity to own The Scream were collectively ready, willing, and able to spend $350 million that evening. With someone else now in possession of Munch’s painting, what will they do with that money?
Here in East Harlem, $350 million is an unimaginable sum. Local residents struggle to save $20 to buy food for their families. Senior citizens skip days of medication to make their prescriptions last longer. Single mothers work multiple jobs and still earn barely enough money for child care. Finding money for necessities like milk and diapers is a daily hurdle. Paying the rent is a monthly wall.
For the social service agencies that assist these residents, $350 million is unimaginable as well. Facing constant cutbacks in funding, we spend inordinate amounts of time seeking donations and grants to keep essential programs operating, even at a bare bones level. Most of those requests go unanswered, leaving the agencies as close to poverty as the individuals they serve.
What could we do with those combined opening bids? For one hundredth of one percent – $35,000 – we could run an entire program to help low-income students stay in college, provide supplemental tutoring to elementary school students, provide job training for out-of-school youth, or deliver meals to homebound seniors.
One art collector’s $50 million minimum auction bid, invested here in East Harlem, could singlehandedly stabilize dozens of local organizations, ensuring that for years to come their programs will remain available to the tens of thousands of residents who desperately need child care, housing assistance, afterschool programs, food pantries, job training, homebound care, mental health counseling, English language classes, benefits assistance, health screenings, senior centers, and so much more. These programs change lives – and often save them – for a few hundred dollars per participant.
Think of the tremendous good that could be done by all seven collectors together, if they decided not to wait for the next auction, and instead chose to spend their $350 million now, on any or all of these immediately pressing needs. Think of the difference that could be made in this world by just seven new patrons of the urban poor.
The cry of existential despair Munch’s painting depicts captures something indelible about modern life, and it could be argued that such works of art are “priceless.” There are many other priceless things, however, that weave together the fabric of the city life we share – things like providing care to our elderly, education to our young, and opportunity to those least privileged. Without those services, we invite thousands of cries of despair that will never be framed on a collector’s wall.
David Nocenti is the Executive Director of Union Settlement Association, the oldest and largest social service provider in East Harlem.
honest talk about sex can help curb teen pregnancy
Published August 5, 2012 in the New York Daily News
By David Nocenti
Sometimes partisan battles in Washington cause civilian casualties. Here is one example.
The federal Department of Health and Human Services recently offered $4.6 million to nonprofits interested in providing “abstinence-only” pregnancy prevention education programs. Entities that receive this funding — which the government has been providing periodically for more than a decade — must teach the benefits of abstaining from sex, but are prohibited by law from “any other education regarding sexual conduct.
This is a dangerous gag rule that precludes safe-sex education, such as the use of condoms.
Abstinence-only education was promoted by those who claimed the approach was more effective in reducing teen pregnancies than an expansive curriculum that includes the discussion of safe-sex practices.
Experience and research, however, have proven those claims to be inaccurate: Teen pregnancy rates are higher among those who receive abstinence-only education than those who get comprehensive sex ed.
Based on that evidence, it is now time for Congress to end the failed abstinence-only experiment. And if Congress won’t do so, President Obama should.
My organization works in East Harlem, where teen pregnancy is a significant problem. Operating a wide-ranging adolescent pregnancy prevention program funded by New York State and private foundations, we’ve succeeded in reducing the incidence of teen pregnancy.
Social services agencies like mine firmly believe in teaching abstinence. Indeed, in our view, it is impossible to caution about the risks of sexual activity without also talking about the benefits of abstaining.
But abstinence education is only one component of a broader continuum of instruction (including the use of condoms) that is effective in reducing teen pregnancy rates. Condoms not only prevent pregnancies but also reduce the incidence of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Thus, many of us who work in this field believe it makes no sense to refuse to encourage sexually active teens to use condoms.
There’s more. For example, the federal government requires organizations receiving abstinence-only funding to teach youth that a “mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage” is the “expected standard of human sexual activity.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, however, more than 85% of U.S. residents who were married by age 44 had premarital sex. Teenagers are not fools; if we follow this mandate and teach things they know are false, we lose credibility.
Congress further requires organizations to teach that bearing out-of-wedlock children is “likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents and society.” According to the CDC, 41% of children in the U.S. are born out of wedlock, so this law asks us to effectively insult and demean our students by instructing that the circumstances of their birth are damaging.
The abstinence-versus-prevention battle is not a fight that either side should “win.” Those who teach prevention without mentioning abstinence, and those who teach abstinence without discussing prevention, will be equally ineffective.
There is a simple solution: The Obama administration should recognize that the abstinence-only education experiment has failed. It should withdraw this most recent proposal unless and until Congress eliminates the requirement that providers preach a false “expected standard” of behavior, removes the condemnation of the very existence of children born out of wedlock and rejects the gag rule against any discussion of how to prevent pregnancies.
The result? Less youth sexual activity, fewer teen pregnancies, fewer sexually transmitted diseases, fewer deaths. Shouldn’t that, and not scoring political points, be the goal?
Nocenti is the executive director of the Union Settlement Association.
Published January 29, 2012 in The New York Daily News
By David Nocenti
Recently, I was speaking with a colleague who runs a local nonprofit who told me about a crime that she unwittingly was planning to commit. Namely, she was thinking of hiring a licensed social worker to work with at-risk youth. Apparently she was not aware that, unless she applied for a waiver to do so, New York State would treat that hiring as a felony.
You read that right: In our state, social service organizations are not allowed to hire licensed social workers.
How can that be? The state Education Department says it is illegal for most corporate entities, including nonprofits, to hire anyone who has a license to practice any of over 40 professions — from physicians to engineers to social workers to family therapists. Instead, these licensed professionals are only allowed to work in their own professional group practices.
This rule apparently is based on the belief that licensed professionals can be unduly influenced by unlicensed supervisors, and will somehow be convinced to abandon their professional ethics in support of some separate corporate goal.
But the state itself clearly gives little credence to that theory, because it has granted numerous exemptions to the rule. For example, there are exemptions for pharmacists, speech pathologists, massage therapists and optometrists. (This exemption explains why you can get a prescription filled at Duane Reade and can buy eyeglasses at Lenscrafters.) In addition, hospitals and HMOs have an exemption to hire licensed health professionals such as doctors and nurses without violating the law.
But for smaller social service organizations like the one I oversee, the rules are especially convoluted. In particular, when faced with the state’s assertion that it was illegal for nonprofit organizations to hire licensed social workers, a coalition of nonprofits and advocates for social workers convinced the state Legislature in 2010 to pass a law authorizing nonprofits to individually apply for waivers from that prohibition.
The deadline to do so expires, however, on Feb. 1, 2012. After that, if a nonprofit hasn’t applied for a waiver, or if its request for a waiver is denied, hiring a licensed social worker to provide services for the poor could lead to criminal charges.
This is no way to try to get services to people in need. Nor do I believe it is an accurate reading of the law. The statute that the Education Department relies on merely says that it is illegal for an unlicensed person to practice a profession or to “hold himself out as being able to practice a profession.” From there, the state concludes that corporations cannot hire licensed professionals at all.
That, of course, defies all common sense. If you watch a television commercial for an airline offering low-fare flights to Florida, you assume that the plane will be flown by a licensed pilot. If a nonprofit says it offers mental health counseling to help individuals with HIV and AIDS, the assumption is that the counseling is provided by licensed social workers, not the nonprofit’s bookkeepers. The nonprofit is “holding itself out” as employing licensed professionals, as well it should, but not as practicing a profession.
It is time to abandon this crazy patchwork system. In particular, the Education Department should acknowledge that while practicing a profession without a license should be a felony, hiring a licensed professional to practice that profession should not.
At a bare minimum, the Legislature should grant social workers the same exemption that pharmacists, speech pathologists, massage therapists and optometrists already enjoy.
Either action will free those of us in the nonprofit world to focus on our mission of serving individuals in need, without fear of prosecution.
Published August 29, 2011 in The New York Daily News
By David Nocenti
Imagine if the government decided to build a 10-mile road, but told potential contractors that it would only pay for 9 miles - and the contractor had to secure donations from private citizens to cover the rest. The government would be rightly chastised for trying to get something for nothing, and no rational company would bid on the contract.
Published November 12, 2010 in Caribbean Life
By David Nocenti
There is a movement sweeping the country that will have a fundamental impact on the lives of the poor, the disabled, and the disadvantaged. Unfortunately, it is not a movement to bring compassionate assistance to these individuals, but rather one that disbands decades of bipartisan efforts, through government action, to fulfill society’s collective obligation to help those in need.
The latest—but far from last—manifestation of this movement occurred on Election Day, and it would have occurred regardless of which party claimed victory. The reality is that no individual can run for office—and certainly none can be elected—unless their platform opposes taxes, opposes government spending, and indeed opposes government itself.
State and local budgets are already shrinking rapidly due to the economic downturn, and that will now also occur on the federal level. The adverse impacts from these cuts will accelerate as well.
What will this new reality bring? The first hardships will be visited on those in greatest need: shorter time periods for unemployment benefits, greater restrictions on eligibility for food stamps, the elimination of subsidized child care slots, reduced aid for new immigrants, fewer services for those with physical and mental disabilities, fewer shelters for the homeless, reduced services for the homebound elderly, and so much more.
We collectively seem to have forgotten not just the hardships that existed before these programs were put in place, but, crucially, that these programs protect not just the poor, but the middle class as well.
Subsidized child care for poor parents and English language classes for new immigrants allow both groups to find jobs and start paying taxes. Unemployment benefits and food stamps allow individuals to feed their families and avoid eviction, so that they too can find work rather than fall into hunger and homelessness. Providing in-home services for the elderly and the disabled, as well as programs for disconnected youth, saves taxpayer dollars by avoiding the higher costs of institutionalization.
For example, in the past individuals looking for work were eligible for publicly funded child care. Due to budget cutbacks, however, that eligibility has been eliminated. Here is an example of the real-life impact of that change: Earlier this year Rosa P. was working and her daughter attended one of Union Settlement’s child care centers. Rosa then lost her job, which meant that her daughter’s child care was no longer funded. Rosa found herself in a double-bind: unable to afford to pay for child care and unable to look for a new job while she was caring for her daughter. Because of this reduction, Rosa is neither working nor paying taxes, and her daughter no longer has the benefits of early childhood education.
Because certain types of spending cannot be reduced (such as debt service) or are considered too essential to reduce (such as military spending), budget cuts will have to be imposed on more than just programs for the poor. Both rich and poor want to have safe streets, but governments are already cutting police officers, probation officers, and transitional services for those leaving prison. The inevitable result: More crime. Every time there is an outbreak of salmonella, or a bridge collapse, or a new insider trading scheme, the public asks: “Where were the government inspectors and regulators?” Increasingly, the answer will be: “We had to lay them off.”
There are still many among us who believe that society has a collective obligation to care for those in need, and to provide opportunities for those who wish to learn and work and produce. Since the Great Depression, Americans have realized that the most efficient way to provide those services is through government funding—either directly, or through non-profit organizations that offer child care, youth programs, job training, food banks, adult education, immigrant assistance, home care, and other basic social services to those in need.
The tide, however, clearly has turned, and those with the loudest voices are winning the debate over whether the government is a mechanism through which the voting public can do good, or an impediment that must be dismantled. And so the new, long-term reality of lower taxes and decreasing government spending has arrived, and looks like it’s here to stay. Unfortunately, the old adage “you get what you pay for” applies not just to products we buy in stores, but to our government as well.
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