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From the Desk of the Executive Director

David Nocenti, Executive Director

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

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

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.