From the Desk of the Executive Director

David Nocenti, Executive Director

NYPD reform to begin today
Published October 2, 2020 in the New York Daily News
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The recovery plan we deserve: Get help to the people in deepest need
Published May 14, 2020 in the New York Daily News
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When unions buy members’ votes
Published September 10, 2019 in the New York Daily News
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Fix NYC’s broken living wage law
Published October 5, 2018 in the New York Daily News
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Undocumented immigrants might be avoiding nonprofits
Published July 31, 2018 in the New York Nonprofit Media
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When harassment costs the public
Published February 22, 2018 in the New York Daily News
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Inequality of de Blasio’s making
Published May 18, 2017 in the New York Daily News
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A Math Problem that’s Costing People Jobs
Published August 17, 2016 in USA Today
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Donors, Consider Whether the Charity You’re Supporting Is Already Rich
Published November 6, 2015 in The Chronicle of Philanthropy
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How to move toward $15 today
Published September 25, 2015 in the New York Daily News
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Starving Those Who Help the Poor
Published March 9, 2015 in the New York Daily News
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Charities Should Give, Not Beg, on Giving Tuesday
Published November 20, 2014 in The Chronicle of Philanthropy

Making Equal Work for Equal Pay an Official NYC Policy
Published April 8, 2014 in the Huffington Post

Separation of Powers: Still Alive and Well in NYC
Published January 3, 2014 in the Huffington Post

“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

Silence for the Poor
Published August 23, 2012 in the New York Nonprofit Press

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

Most Recent Articles

NYPD reform to begin today

By David Nocenti, Fred Davie and Damyn Kelly
Published in the New York Daily News
October 2, 2020

Outrage over the continued unjustified police killings of Black men and women — and the lack of serious consequences for the officers who engage in them — has moved far past demonstrations and street protests, with calls for immediate and substantive changes.

Fortunately, here in New York City, there is an emerging consensus on specific reforms that can and should be adopted right away.

At the end of August, a broad coalition of more than 50 nonprofit social service, social justice and religious organizations proposed the Reform NYPD Now agenda, a list of immediate actions to reduce incidents of police officer misconduct and enhance accountability for officers who engage in such misconduct.

The agenda includes the “8 Can’t Wait” reforms — a national initiative to get police departments to adopt changes such as requiring officers to de-escalate situations before using force and report all uses of force and intervene when they see other officers engaging in misconduct. These reforms have already been adopted in San Francisco, Tucson and elsewhere.

The agenda also includes other vital reforms, such as enhancing the powers of the NYC Civilian Complaint Review Board; making footage from body-worn cameras immediately available to the public, rather than released only at the commissioner’s discretion; prohibiting the hiring of officers with a history of substantiated misconduct complaints; and requiring annual training for all officers in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, de-escalation strategies and preventing discriminatory profiling.

Some of these changes can be instituted by Mayor de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea immediately, while others require action by the City Council.

Will these changes prevent improper police use of force? No. But will they reduce the chances that such shootings and other misconduct will occur? Absolutely.

Separately, many individuals are advocating to “Defund the Police” — a phrase that means very different things to different people.

To some, it means completely dismantling current police departments and creating new policing systems, as advocated in June by the Minneapolis City Council following the murder of George Floyd.

To others, it means taking substantial funding from police departments — including by reducing their responsibilities in schools, homeless shelters, “quality of life” enforcement, etc. — and utilizing those funds to greatly expand social service programs in low-income communities of color.

Unfortunately, the phrase “Defund the Police” has now been co-opted by advocates for the status quo, and used to mischaracterize all reform advocates as seeking the complete abolition of police departments. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In reality, the debate should be less about whether to “Defund the Police,” and more about how we can collectively “Reimagine Policing.”

That certainly should include withdrawing the police from activities outside their core training and expertise, and reallocating those savings to address the underlying inequities in communities of color. But we also must improve how police officers are recruited and trained, enhance community input into police strategies, incorporate principles of restorative justice into our overall approach to law enforcement, and so much more.

There also is one clear unknown: Will reducing the number of police officers on the streets adversely impact public safety in the short term, before the infusion of social service funding can start to address the existing underlying inequities?

These are weighty issues, which must be discussed and resolved in a comprehensive way, and many members of our reform coalition are already part of that advocacy. In the interim, we must take steps that will rebuild trust, and likely save lives as well.

This must be a joint effort. The coalition members are embedded in low-income communities of color, and work closely with dedicated police officers of all races, ethnicities, religions and genders. We and others understand the important role that police officers play in helping to keep neighborhoods safe — just as dedicated police officers understand that their hard work and good intentions are completely undermined whenever other officers engage in misconduct.

Unfortunately, police misconduct — not just unjustified shootings, but every other instance of excessive force, mistreatment and disrespect — happens with enough frequency that a deep chasm of mistrust now exists between communities of color and the police.

Bridging that chasm is perhaps the most urgent task that we face as a society, and this starts with implementing immediate changes to current police policies and practices.

Doing so will not solve all the problems that exist, but it will create a better, fairer and safer baseline, on which longer-term reforms can be built. The proposed reforms are not new, nor are they hard. All we need is for our elected officials to have the political will to implement them.

Nocenti is the executive director of Union Settlement in East Harlem. Davie is the chair of the NYC Civilian Complaint Review Board and executive vice president of Union Theological Seminary. Kelly is the president and CEO of Lutheran Social Services of New York.

The recovery plan we deserve: Get help to the people in the deepest need

By David Nocenti
Published in the New York Daily News
May 14, 2020

At long last, significant media attention is being focused on the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on low-income communities of color. Unfortunately, those press reports woefully understate the depth and breadth of the problem.

In truth, government was astonishingly slow to recognize and respond to the easily predictable impact of this pandemic on low-income neighborhoods. These communities have all the preexisting conditions that would predict the devastating impact we are currently witnessing: limited access to quality health care; overcrowded housing conditions that accelerate the spread of the virus; a high prevalence of conditions like hypertension and diabetes that greatly increase COVID-19 exposure, symptoms and death rates; residents in low-wage jobs that cannot be done remotely; and families with little or no savings available to respond to even small daily challenges.

So it comes as no surprise that a disproportionate number of COVID-19 victims are black, brown and poor or working class.

These communities are now in the midst of a multi-crisis crisis: a health crisis, an unemployment crisis, a food crisis, a mental health crisis, a bereavement crisis and a housing crisis.

Government officials at all levels are sprinting to respond to the public health crisis, which they think will allow us to “open things up again” and have a “return to normalcy.” That will not happen anytime soon — not here in East Harlem where I live and work, and not in other low-income communities across the country.

This is a triathlon, not a sprint, and arriving at a triathlon with your swimsuit but no bicycle or running shoes is a strategy for failure.

We instead need a recovery plan that aggressively addresses all of the separate but interconnected crises simultaneously.

Every day, we see charts and graphs of new cases, deaths, numbers recovered, etc., and lists of actions being taken to “bend the curve.” All of that is sensible and correct. But those are not the charts I most want to see.

I want to see a chart of the number of individuals who have visited a food pantry in the past month. And one of the number of businesses that are boarded up. And one showing individuals who are unemployed, or who can’t pay their rent. Or whose children can’t do “distance learning” because there is no internet access at home. Or who have zero dollars in the bank. Or who are homeless.

For each of those charts, I want to see what the curve will look like if we do nothing, and then a list of the actions government is taking to bend those curves.

Yes, we need massive COVID-19 testing. We also need an immediate elimination of the red tape impeding the filing of unemployment claims, a massive infusion of funding for food banks and an expansion of food stamp benefits to everyone who is unemployed.

We need the immediate conversion of vacant hotel rooms into housing for COVID-positive individuals who cannot self-isolate at home because there are multiple other individuals living in the same small apartment.

We need stimulus checks that go to every low-income household every month — including undocumented residents — so that people can pay their rent and purchase basic necessities until the crisis abates. We need funding for social workers to assist those who are overwhelmed by the challenges they face.

We need a Paycheck Protection Program that actually is aimed at small businesses in need (rather than the Los Angeles Lakers and Sidwell Friends School), and we need accessible child care and after-school programs, so that when jobs do open up, parents can fill them.

The failure to consider and undertake these types of actions is an affirmative decision to condemn low-income communities of color to an early demise, just as the virus has done to so many of our beloved neighbors.

Nocenti is the executive director of Union Settlement, providing education, wellness and community-building services in East Harlem.

When unions buy members’ votes: So-called ‘ratification bonuses’ subvert the democratic process

By David Nocenti
Published in the New York Daily News
September 10, 2019

Imagine walking into your polling place to vote, and being told that if a particular candidate won, all voters would receive $500. That sounds like something that should be illegal, right? But amazingly, something very similar happens frequently in the world of union collective bargaining agreements.

As a general rule, once a new contract is negotiated between management and union leaders, it still must be ratified by a majority vote of the union membership. In order to induce passage, management and the union leaders often agree that if the contract gets approved, some or all union members will get a “ratification bonus.” If the contract gets rejected, they get nothing.

Here is a recent, real-world example.

New York City contracts with dozens of non-profit organizations — including the organization I oversee here in East Harlem — to provide early childhood education services to low-income families. Most of the workers are unionized, and although the collective bargaining agreement technically is between the non-profits and the union, the city pays for all the costs of the program and therefore gets to decide how much the workers should be paid.

These workers historically have been paid much less than public school employees with identical experience — creating a “separate but unequal” system that has been decried for years. Earlier this summer, Mayor de Blasio and the union announced agreement on a new contract, providing substantial starting salary increases for certified teachers in the non-profit centers.

The union consists of more than just certified teachers, however, and the proposed contract did not provide similar salary increases for these lower-paid union members, such as non-certified teachers, maintenance staff, cooks and bookkeepers.

These other workers constitute about 85% of the union members, and this creates a dilemma: How do you get union members to ratify a contract that primarily benefits only about 15% of the workers?

Well, you can rely on “union solidarity,” and trust that the disadvantaged members will vote for the contract in the hope that they will also get increases at some point in the future. But you probably wouldn’t bet the house on it. So what do you do?

Answer: A “ratification bonus.” The proposed contract stated the 85% of the workers who were not getting substantial salary increases would get paid a bonus of $1,800 if the contract was ratified.

The vote was held, and the union members approved the contract, by a margin of 3 to 1.

The bonus was, effectively, a bribe to vote for the contract — albeit a legal bribe, because there currently is no law against it.

It is important to remember that most of the early childhood union workers are low-paid employees, as is typical in the non-profit sector. Indeed, many earn only the $15 per hour minimum wage. For these employees, a potential $1,800 bonus is a huge amount to turn down, particularly when there is rent to pay and a family to feed.

But this short-term gain is to their long-term detriment, because after one year, even a small salary increase is worth more than a one-time $1,800 bonus.

Yes, it is true that the union leaders who represent the workers must agree before a ratification bonus is included in a proposed contract, but often the union’s bargaining power is limited. Indeed, in this case, the union had started by demanding salary increases for all workers in all job titles, but the city refused and the union ended up trying to get the best deal it could.

We need legislation prohibiting these bonuses because they corrupt the democratic contract voting process and take advantage of low-wage workers.

Until such legislation is enacted, elected officials, corporate executives and union leaders should all pledge not to include ratification bonuses in any contract proposal presented to union members for ratification. Only then will we truly know if the members, all of them, support the terms of the proposed agreement.

Nocenti is the executive director of Union Settlement, providing education, wellness and community-building services in East Harlem.

Fix NYC’s broken living wage law

By David Nocenti
Published in the New York Daily News
October 5, 2018

Although New York State has won praise for its planned move to a $15-per-hour minimum wage — which will be phased in over time, starting in New York City at the end of this year — lost in the applause is the fact that, particularly in the five boroughs, the full-time workers making $15 an hour will still barely be able to scrape by.

The minimum wage has never been, and is not scheduled to become, a “living wage,” which generally is defined as the amount a person working full-time needs to pay for basic necessities such as food, housing, transportation, health care and child care.

Over 20 years ago this stark reality — that full-time minimum wage workers live in poverty — spawned the municipal movement to require higher wages for many workers. In particular, local governments began passing laws requiring that entities receiving government contracts pay workers enough to afford the basics of a dignified life.

In 2002, New York City passed a local law requiring entities with city contracts to pay higher wages to employees in traditionally low-paid positions, such as child-care workers, home-care workers and kitchen staff. The law was phased in over four years, ending at $10 an hour in 2006, which was about 50% higher than New York State’s minimum wage at the time.

This was considered a landmark, because it was projected to protect more than 60,000 workers, making it by far the largest living wage law in the country, and it encouraged many other municipalities to follow suit.

Unfortunately, the statute had a fatal flaw: It was not indexed to inflation or to future increases in the minimum wage — and so its benefits have completely eroded over time.

It is time to fix this.

The city’s decision in 2002 to set the living wage substantially higher than the minimum wage was intentional, both because the minimum wage left full-time workers in poverty, and because higher wages for workers serving vulnerable populations like young children and the elderly reduce the incentive for those workers to move to less-stressful minimum-wage jobs.

The same logic holds now. The minimum wage is now poised to increase to $15 an hour, but the city’s statutory living wage is still just $10 an hour — unchanged in over a decade, and completely meaningless because all employers must pay the higher minimum wage.

Is $15 an hour enough to live on? Not in New York City. MIT researchers’ estimates of a true living wage in New York City range from $16.14 an hour for a single adult, to $21.55 for two working parents with two children, to $39.93 for a single parent with two children.

So we find ourselves in an Alice in Wonderland world, with the minimum wage now higher than the living wage, and workers caring for our most vulnerable populations easily able to find less-challenging jobs for the same pay, resulting in the high turnover rates that the living wage law was intended to prevent.

But here is a glimmer of hope: One of the sponsors of the city’s 2002 living wage law was then-Councilmember Bill de Blasio. Hopefully the mayor and current City Council members will finally update the living wage to again be substantially higher than the minimum wage, and index it to inflation thereafter.

That will allow these forgotten workers to once again earn the true “living wage” they so justly deserve: one that they can actually live on.

Undocumented immigrants might be avoiding nonprofits.

By David Nocenti
Published in the New York Nonprofit Media
July 31, 2018

People across the country and around the world have been appalled at how our federal government is treating immigrant families. We have watched helplessly as the government implemented a sweeping policy separating children from their parents at the border and we have cringed while reading individual cases of anguish.

And these are the reactions of many American citizens who have no reason to fear an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent at the door.

Imagine the stress and anxiety our neighbors who are undocumented must be feeling?

What sometimes goes under-reported is how deep and pervasive the fear of deportation can be and how that fear affects the daily lives of undocumented immigrants and their families.

We are trying to help.

Union Settlement has been providing core social services to waves of immigrant families in East Harlem for over a century – from the Irish and German immigrants arriving at the time of our founding in 1895, to the Italian and Jewish immigrants who came at the turn of the 20th century, to more recent immigrants from Mexico, Central America, West Africa, the Middle East and China. Generation after generation, these families have made and continue to make East Harlem a diverse and vibrant neighborhood with a wonderful mix of backgrounds and cultures.

Over the years, many of these immigrants arrived without required documentation. But they stayed and thrived and put down deep roots for their families. However, never before have our undocumented immigrant neighbors faced such clear threats of detention. Many are reacting to the fear of deportation by going even deeper underground – foregoing interactions with government, schools, social services and any other places they do not consider to be safe.

In many ways, their fears become our fears. We don’t know how many undocumented immigrants we serve, because in order to provide a safe space for all our participants, we consciously do not ask program participants if they are legal residents. We also do not circulate photographs showing the faces of participants who we believe to be undocumented, because it might be a disincentive for them to access our programs.

The demand for our services is great, so when undocumented immigrants choose not to access our early childhood, youth services, adult education, senior services or other programs, we are able to fill those slots with other individuals – so class size seems to remain the same. All of this makes it difficult for us to prove declining undocumented immigrant attendance trends with anything but anecdotal evidence – but we know the trends are real.

Last year, Union Settlement hosted a workshop for immigrants regarding their rights, covering topics such as: “What do you do if ICE stops you on the street?” The information was vitally important though it was disheartening that we had to offer the workshop at all.

Even worse, we were counseled by immigrant advocacy groups not to post flyers about the workshop and instead to rely on word-of-mouth communication, because of the appallingly conceivable possibility that ICE would see our promotionsand send agents to detain attendees at the event.

And, most depressing of all, one portion of the workshop focused on informing undocumented immigrant parents that, because they might get picked up and detained at any time, they needed to put a plan in place for who will take care of their children if they don’t come home.

We’ve all seen or read public service announcements advising parents to have a “go bag” of essential items to grab in case you need to evacuate your home – but how many American citizens are forced to have an “if I don’t come home ever” plan? Probably not many. Yet this is the reality that members of our immigrant community face every day.

So it is no wonder that undocumented immigrant families are choosing to disengage, and not access the services made available to assist them. This includes some parents not enrolling their children in early childhood education programs like those offered by Union Settlement – even if those children were born in this country and are American citizens.

Others are entitled to receive food stamps to cover the cost of feeding their U.S.-born children. But given the constant anti-immigrant rhetoric from Washington, how many are forgoing those benefits – possibly jeopardizing their children’s health – because the application requires them to give their name and address to the government prompting fears that the information could be used to initiate deportations?

Our social safety net should be available to protect everyone who falls on hard times and needs support. Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s words and actions are forcing undocumented immigrants to walk a treacherous path and avoid the core programs and services designed to help them survive and lead productive lives.

This piece originally appeared online in the New York Nonprofit Media on July 31, 2018.

When harassment costs the public: Having taxpayers pay up is the only way to make victims whole

By David Nocenti
Published in the New York Daily News
February 22, 2018

Across the country, elected officials are proposing legislation to prohibit the use of taxpayer dollars to settle sexual harassment claims brought against government employees.

Such a proposal, intended to hold individual harassers accountable, was a major component of a package of reforms proposed here in New York by Gov. Cuomo; similar bills are under consideration in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan and elsewhere.

While these bills may sound good — why should taxpayers be on the hook for illegal behavior by government employees? — they are likely to be struck down if challenged in court. Equally important, they’re just bad policy.

Consider attempting to implement such a policy in a corporate setting. Assume that the board of directors of XYZ Co. passes a resolution prohibiting the use of company funds to resolve cases of sexual harassment brought against the company.

Victims can sue, but their only recourse will ultimately be against the individuals who discriminated against them — some of whom might have left the company long before the cases go to trial, and others who may have limited assets and are unable to pay any damages. Even if it is apparent that the company allowed, or possibly even perpetuated, a culture of harassment, the company itself would never pay a dime, and the victims would get nothing.

Absurd, right?

Thankfully, this cannot occur. Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination based on gender, prohibited by the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, and companies cannot exempt themselves from the law by passing resolutions prohibiting the use of corporate dollars to pay damages to victims of discrimination. Nor can state governments. 

Like all employers, state governments are subject to the federal civil rights laws, which means they cannot avoid liability by adopting legislation refusing to use public dollars to pay damages for harm caused by their employees. Similar “no taxpayer dollars” legislation is pending in Congress, which ironically has the power to circumvent the civil rights statutes.

But the reason these policies are misguided goes beyond this. Currently, government lawyers can decide that an accuser’s claims have merit, and choose to settle the case and compensate the victim. Banning taxpayer-funded settlements will preclude that, and harassers could decide to force the victims into the long and expensive litigation process.

Even when victims win their lawsuits, they will then face the burden of tracking down their harassers’ assets (if any) to satisfy the court’s monetary award, and likely will end up with large attorneys’ fees and little or no compensation. This arduous and painful process is likely to deter many government employees from bringing sexual harassment actions in the future.

Instead of relying on proposals that are likely illegal at the state level, and likely harmful to victims everywhere, let’s instead listen to the brave women who have been so vocal on this issue over the past several months, and ask all employers to hold themselves to a higher standard.

One way to do this is by eliminating nondisclosure agreements. Currently, employers who settle sexual harassment claims generally include an NDA in the settlement, prohibiting the accused from disclosing the terms of the agreement. Sometimes these provisions are desired by the accuser, but most often they are simply demanded by the employer, and more often end up protecting the tormentor over the victim.

Across the country, women have called on employers to immediately stop including nondisclosure agreements in settlements unless requested by the victim, and publicly pledge not to enforce NDAs included in such agreements in the past.

These actions will free victims to tell their stories if they so choose. Eliminating NDA protections will simultaneously raise the standard of personal conduct in organizations by publicly exposing patterns of behavior that would otherwise remain hidden.

Unfortunately, we know that many companies will continue to hide misconduct by their employees, and this is where our federal and state government officials can play a part. They should pass legislation (or, where permitted, issue executive orders) refusing to do business with entities that continue to require nondisclosure agreements in discrimination settlements, or declaring such provisions void unless requested by the victim.

For too long, corporate and government entities have maintained laws, policies and practices that have helped perpetuate sexual harassment in the workforce. Now is the time for them to become part of the solution. Forget the feel-good, counterproductive policy ideas and get down to business.

This piece originally appeared in print in the New York Daily News on February 22, 2018. Copyright © 2018 Daily News, L.P.

Inequality of de Blasio’s making

By David Nocenti
Published in the New York Daily News
May 18, 2017

How can “free for all” be unfair for some?

Mayor de Blasio’s “3K for All” plan has a lofty goal of vastly increasing the number of 3-year-olds receiving free early childhood education services, and thereby enhancing their chances of succeeding in public school, and in life.

However, unless the city simultaneously addresses the unfairly low wages of early education teachers in nonprofit centers, the new “3K for All” initiative could inflict a fatal blow to the already fragile system for educating the city’s youngest and most vulnerable children.

New York City currently contracts with scores of nonprofit entities that provide full-day education to 2-to-4-year-olds, primarily in low-income communities. The services are free for very low-income families (for example, a family of four with a household income under $24,300), and parents earning more than the maximum income to qualify for free services pay sliding scale fees based on their income.

Three years ago , the mayor launched his “PreK for All” program, which offered free universal pre-kindergarten education for all 4-year-olds, regardless of family income. Many of those UPK classrooms are located in public schools, while many others are located in nonprofit early childhood education centers, such as the seven centers that my organization oversees here in East Harlem.

In the public schools, lead classroom teachers with master’s degrees and state certifications earn a starting salary of $60,704. Those with 10 years of experience earn $82,995, and those with 20 years of experience earn $101,550.

In the nonprofit centers, UPK teachers with identical credentials — a master’s degree and state certification — get paid a starting salary of $50,000, with minimal longevity increases. Teachers with 10 or 20 years’ experience earn only $51,000 and $51,700, respectively.

Even worse, the certified master’s-level teachers of 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds in the nonprofit centers make even less. Their salaries start at $46,000, and those with 20 years’ experience earn just $47,700.

The City pays 100% of all of these salaries in both the public schools and nonprofit classrooms, and so it is blatantly unfair — and educationally destructive — to have a system where one set of teachers makes 32% to 113% more than a second set of equally qualified teachers.

Indeed, not only do the public school teachers get paid more for identical work, but they also don’t have to teach in the summer or during school holidays, while the nonprofit centers are open 52 weeks a year.

Not surprisingly, these wildly unfair pay disparities have led to a brain drain, with certified teachers moving from the nonprofit centers to the public schools. And other teachers at nonprofits have left the teaching profession entirely.

The result has been a severe shortage of certified teachers in the nonprofit programs. And the teachers who remain — who are mostly women of color — are left wondering why the city is treating them like second-class citizens by refusing to approve salaries on par with those of their public school counterparts.

With the new “3K for All” proposal, the City is now looking to place, on this already fragile and inequitable foundation, the weight of a massive expansion of free preschool classes for all 3-year-olds, including a requirement that those classes be led by certified teachers as well.

I and many other nonprofit early childhood program leaders fully support that goal, but if the new “3K for All” program is implemented without first correcting the salary inequities, there simply will not be a sufficient number of certified teachers available.

This could force the closure of the nonprofit classrooms, and the low-income children in those centers will no longer benefit from the educational programming that the mayor himself says is so crucial for their future success.

In addition, working parents — particularly single mothers — will no longer have a place for their children to go during the day, and will either have to stop working or place their children in unlicensed and unregulated settings.

The solution is simple: equal pay for equal work. The city should agree to pay all similarly qualified teachers the same amount, regardless of whether they happen to teach in a city-funded public school or a city-funded nonprofit center.

That will create a level playing field, and will demonstrate a clear commitment to the quality of education provided to all the city’s children, regardless of where they live or how much their families earn.

A Math Problem that’s Costing People Jobs

By David Nocenti
Published in USA Today
August 17, 2016

There’s no reason to ask about polynomial expressions on High School Equivalency exams.

We’re being inundated during this presidential campaign season with talk about the need to put more Americans back to work. But that’s an increasingly elusive goal for those who don’t have a high school degree.

Nationwide, people without a high school degree are48% more likely to be unemployed than high school graduates — and those who find a job earn, on average, 27% less than individuals with a high school degree.

Compared with college graduates, they are more than twice as likely to be unemployed, and those with jobs earn 57% less than those with college degrees. Over a lifetime, people with a high school or college degree earn $331,000 and $1.3 million more, respectively, than those who have dropped out of high school.

We clearly need a major national effort to help these dropouts earn their High School Equivalency degrees. Fortunately, there is an obstacle we can easily remove — the excessively difficult math component of the HSE exam.

Before 2014, only one HSE test — the GED — was offered nationally. The 2013 pass rate for the test was 75.3% for about 743,136 test takers, according to the 2013 GED Annual Statistical Report. But in 2014, the GED was revamped to align with Common Core standards, and states introduced two new alternatives.

All three tests are now much more difficult than the prior version of the GED. As a result, only about 316,000 people took one of the three HSE tests in 2014 and the pass rate dropped to 62%, according to the National Council of State Directors of Adult Education.

The math sections of these tests are particularly difficult. For example, one question asks you to identify which of several mathematical expressions result in a rational number. Another requires you to know the formula for the volume of a sphere. When was the last time you needed these skills at your workplace?

It is perfectly appropriate to require individuals to learn math to get a high school degree, because you need math skills to shop for food, set a household budget, understand credit card interest rates, and complete a host of other personal and professional tasks. But with few exceptions, you do not need to understand linear equations, polynomial expressions or irrational numbers, all of which are tested on theHSE exam.

The organization I oversee here in East Harlem has a robust adult education program, providing HSE classes not just to those who dropped out of high school, but also to recent immigrants from Central America, Africa and Asia. Many students come to us with only the most rudimentary math skills, and we work hard — and very successfully — to teach them the math they need to flourish in almost any job. But for the vast majority of them, polynomial equations and irrational numbers are a bridge too far.

This experience is borne out in statistics. On the HSE exam given here in New York, the 2015 pass rate for the math component was just 53%, compared to pass rates ranging from 65% to 84% on sections covering reading, science, social studies and writing. And because you must pass all five sections, your ability to solve math problems often determines your ability to get an HSE degree, which in turn determines your ability to get a job.

This is particularly unjust for those students who have struggled with math from the earliest grades. The subject often is taught poorly, and there are well-documented gender and racial biases in teacher expectations. Moreover, just as it is easier to learn a language when you are young, those who do not achieve early fluency in math often have difficulty catching up to their peers.

Given these substantial obstacles, we should not be requiring students to obtain math skills beyond those needed for success in the workforce or higher education. The HSE exam should be a springboard to college, to better employment, and to a lifetime of higher earnings. But the stark reality is that the math component of the HSE exam is an imposing obstacle that saps resolve, deters progress, and blocks thousands of hard working, intelligent students from gaining the degree that is increasingly a requirement for meaningful employment of any kind.

This is a math problem that needs to be rethought.

Donors, Consider Whether the Charity You’re Supporting Is Already Rich

By David Nocenti
Published in The Chronicle of Philanthropy
November 6, 2015

If you walked down the street and came across two people begging for your loose change — a woman in rags, and a man in a tuxedo standing next to his Porsche — to whom would you be most likely to give?
Everyone’s impulse is to give to the woman in rags.

We’re now in the “giving season” — the last three months of the year, when many individuals make a significant portion of their charitable donations, but also when that sensible decision to consider the poverty (or wealth) of the potential recipient somehow gets ignored. We would never give cash to a stranger who is vastly richer than we are, but we do it all the time when we write checks or make online donations to nonprofits.

Look no further than The Chronicle’s latest Philanthropy 400 ranking of the charities that raise the most money from private sources — from the $3.87 billion raised by the United Way, to the $64 million raised by Harlem Children’s Zone. Total giving to these 400 nonprofits was $97.64 billion — an average of $244 million each, in just one year.

Which raises a question: “Are these the 400 entities that most need all those donations?”
Think about it. When was the last time you considered the wealth of a charity to which you were giving? Probably never.

This is true even though the wealth of charities is available for everyone to see on the Internet. Every nonprofit is required to file an annual IRS Form 990, which provides voluminous financial information about the organization, including its net assets (i.e., total assets minus total liabilities). GuideStar posts all of this information for free.

By reviewing those forms you can see, for example, the net assets of the American Cancer Society ($1.3 billion), the American Heart Association ($863 million), and the Nature Conservancy ($5.7 billion). Interested in giving to the Land Stewardship Project, which supports sustainable agriculture, primarily in the Midwest? Its net assets are $2.8 million. How about Martha’s Mission Cupboard in Morehead City, N.C.? Net assets: $178,400.

Of course, the wealth of organizations is only one factor to consider when deciding where to donate. You need to consider an organization’s mission, the number of people it serves, its sustainability plan, the effectiveness of its services, and many other issues.

Finding cures for cancer, combating heart disease, and saving the environment are hugely important causes, and the organizations undertaking those mammoth tasks necessarily need to accumulate significant funds to be effective.

But a nonprofit’s wealth is something you should know, and consider.

This issue of donations to wealthy nonprofits was brought to the fore in June, when it was reported that hedge-fund manager John Paulson had given $400 million to Harvard University, which already has a $36 billion endowment (and hundreds of millions more in other assets).

The donation created a storm of criticism, and was condemned as an example of the extremely wealthy giving to the unbelievably wealthy — and getting a tax deduction for doing so.
Mr. Paulson’s defenders argued that he has the right to do whatever he wants with his money, and that society is better off with the funds being used by Harvard than sitting in Mr. Paulson’s own ample bank account.

Both assertions are true, but they beg the question of whether, in a world filled with such widespread suffering and poverty, Mr. Paulson could have accomplished more by directing his largess elsewhere.
All donors should ask the same question about their contributions — and those of us in the nonprofit world should encourage them to ask.

Let’s all do what we can to urge Americans to remember that during this giving season it’s important to think of the rags and the tuxedo, and to do some homework before giving.
David Nocenti is executive director of the Union Settlement Association, which has provided education, wellness, and community-building services in East Harlem since 1895.

How to move toward $15 today

By David Nocenti
Published in the New York Daily News
September 25, 2015

Now that Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio agree that the minimum wage should be raised to $15 per hour, workers making less know what will happen next.

They will wait.

They will wait for bills to be introduced in Albany, and for the roller coaster ride of raised expectations and dashed hopes.

They will wait until June 2016, when they will hear whether the $15 minimum wage is passed, or whether they will have to survive on their poverty-level wages for another year.

For two groups of low-wage workers, however, this wait should not be necessary, because the governor and the mayor can increase their wages without new legislation.

The first group is obvious: the over 20,000 state and city government employees making less than $15 per hour. The governor and mayor can simply decide to pay their employees more, and the increases can be phased in to match those that fast-food workers are scheduled to receive: culminating in $15 per hour by 2019 in New York City and by 2021 elsewhere in the state.

The second group is less obvious: workers at companies with government contracts.

State and city governments and public authorities enter into construction and service contracts paying private entities billions of dollars each year. There are contracts to build schools and prisons; to pave highways and paint bridges; to repair vehicles and upgrade computer systems.

The government also hires accountants, lawyers, auditors, architects and a myriad of other consultants. And the government contracts with non-profits to provide a wide variety of services, such as operating child care facilities, group homes, senior centers and homeless shelters.

Using this contracting power, Cuomo and de Blasio can simply issue executive orders stating that, in the future, they will contract only with companies that agree to pay a higher minimum wage to the employees working under those contracts. The cost of those contracts will go up because the state and city will have to provide funding for the higher wages, but those costs will be partially offset by higher income tax revenues and lower entitlement expenses.
There is ample precedent for such action. After President Obama proposed a $10.10 per hour federal minimum wage, he followed up his words with action by signing an executive order raising the minimum wage to $10.10 for all workers on federal construction and service contracts.

These actions would not benefit all low-wage workers in New York, because most are not employed by the government or by companies with government contracts.

Employers need to be part of this fight. Union Settlement — the organization I lead here in East Harlem — has multiple government contracts with many employees paid solely with government funds. The workers in our early childhood education program, for example, have not had a raise in almost 10 years, and over 50% of them make less than $15 per hour. A recent citywide survey of early education workers revealed that over 50% were on Medicaid and 17% were receiving food stamps.

But I can’t increase the salaries of my employees unless the government agrees to provide the necessary funding. De Blasio has taken a major first step by establishing an $11.50 wage minimum on social service contracts, but we need to get to $15. Executive orders could make that happen.

Cuomo said “you can’t support a family on $18,000 a year in New York State.” That is true regardless of who signs your paycheck.

By acting now to increase the wages of government employees and private sector employees working under government contracts, the governor and mayor will be helping tens of thousands of struggling families. No waiting required.
Nocenti is executive director of Union Settlement Association, which has provided education, wellness and community-building services in East Harlem since 1895.

Starving those who help the poor

By David Nocenti
Published in the New York Daily News
March 9, 2015

The canary in the coal mine died last June.

Highbridge Community Life Center, a small nonprofit social service provider in the Bronx, closed its doors after 35 years of service to the low-income residents of the neighborhood. There was no scandal. Rather, there was “a series of unexpected events” — delayed reimbursements on government contracts, staff turnover, overreliance on credit, etc.

Then, this January, the coal mine itself collapsed.

The Federation Employment & Guidance Service (FEGS), by some measures the largest nonprofit social service provider in the city, with a budget over $200 million and serving over 135,000 individuals each year, reported an annual deficit of $19 million and announced it is closing.

Media reports have focused on high executive salaries, but that would explain only a small portion of the shortfall. Certainly there were poor management decisions, and likely waste as well.

But as the head of a century-old social-service provider, I strongly suspect the autopsy will reveal that FEGS closed because of the same ailments many nonprofits face — lower-than-expected revenues, delays in reimbursements and the resulting inability to cover payroll and fixed costs. The real disease, however, is deeper still: Because of the way the city and state pay for services, much of the city’s nonprofit social services sector is unstable and at risk of collapse.

There is little debate over the importance of the services nonprofits provide, such as feeding the hungry and caring for the disabled, or that these are societal problems which we have a collective responsibility to address.

We do so primarily by paying taxes to the government, which then contracts with nonprofits to provide services.

Unfortunately, government starves the nonprofit sector in two crucial ways.
First, the government pays less than the direct costs of providing services to the poor, and expects nonprofits to fundraise the rest. But there is a limited pool of charitable dollars, and nonprofits that cannot fundraise sufficiently end up withering and dying.

Second, New York City and State contracts fail to include sufficient funding to cover indirect costs — rent, maintenance, technology, training, etc. — which should be part of any contract’s overhead rate.

Actual overhead rates generally are at least 15-25% of the total contract amount, but city and state contracts pay much lower rates — some pay 10%, some pay 8%, some pay none. This puts huge additional strains on nonprofits, and further destabilizes the entire system.

This underfunding should be of particular concern to those engaged in philanthropy, because nonprofits must turn to foundations, corporations and individual donors to fill the gap, diverting philanthropic dollars.

The federal government, in contrast, recognizes the importance of paying sufficient overhead rates on federal contracts. Nonprofits submit proof of these costs and the federal agency determines the nonprofit’s federally approved overhead rate, which is paid as part of the contract.

The city and state systematically pay nonprofits well below their federally-approved overhead rates, even on contracts funded with federal dollars — such as when New York City uses federal Head Start monies to fund early childhood education centers. This defeats the federal government’s goal of fairly compensating nonprofits for these costs.

In December, the federal government announced new rules to address this problem, and soon will require states and local governments to pay nonprofits their federally approved overhead rate whenever a contract is funded with federal dollars.

This is a welcome change — but does not help the thousands of nonprofits with contracts funded solely through city and state tax dollars. Those nonprofits will continue to struggle — and many will be forced to close, leaving vulnerable New Yorkers without vital services.

Both Mayor de Blasio and Gov. Cuomo speak frequently about the need to address income inequality, and while steps like raising the minimum wage are important, they are not enough. Social services are crucial as well.

The mayor and governor should follow President Obama’s lead and decree that, commencing with the start of the new city and state fiscal years, nonprofits will receive their federally-approved overhead costs on all city and state contracts — not just those paid for with federal funds.

Otherwise, we run the risk of watching our valued nonprofit organizations slowly disappear, one by one, tearing apart the safety net as they go.