Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics



Laura DeMaio put down the phone with a pained expression on her face. Someone had just called her for help with a mortgage payment and had not even thought to apply for unemployment insurance. He had lost his job at the World Trade Center. "I thought I'd just get another job," he told DeMaio.

"That's the typical response I get," she said. "Most people don't even realize the economy is so bad, that they probably won't get a job so easily." DeMaio is a social worker at the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, where I am the executive director. She handles dozens of phone calls every day, giving out emergency cash assistance. Requests are typically for the most basic needs -- coverage of rent or mortgages, outstanding medical bills or health insurance premiums, utility bills, food.

She administers to people who have always lived on the edge of poverty. But these days, she is receiving more and more calls from 9/11 victims. It is their needs, we know, that will eventually overburden the entire system


Americans have shown themselves to be extremely generous, sending more than one billion dollars so far to New York after September 11. But New York charities are nevertheless taking it on the chin, caught in a double-bind, and things are only going to get worse.

As we know from the experience in Oklahoma City, when government aid tapers off, victims and their families will continue to require various forms of help, especially mental health counseling. These needs will be compounded by the recession, which will require them to look for job re-training, food aid, child care, and in some cases, shelter.

But ironically, according to advocacy groups, both private and public dollars are being diverted from these regular services, to newly created charities specifically devoted to, in the words of Melissa Aase of University Settlement House Project Home, "disaster funds, trauma, and the fallout of the WTC disaster."

With so many funds for victims, there has developed a kind of donor fatigue for other causes in New York, a city that is well known for its social consciousness and its glittering benefit season. In fact, public perception of priority needs at this time is intensely focused on victims of September 11, with little thought to long-term social service needs in a weakened economy.

The recession, the immediate and feared future losses of revenue, donor indifference, and severe budget cuts are putting nonprofits into survival mode. It is prime benefit season, yet most are being cancelled, or the turnout is so low that charities are taking unexpected financial losses. With few funds available for operations, the overall feeling in the nonprofit community is that within the next year, many New York charities will be forced to pare down key programs and services.


This would be a sad predicament for the people of New York at this time in particular. Social service needs were already enormous prior to September 11. Now, poverty continues to deepen. Nearly 20 percent of New Yorkers live at or below the poverty level. Homelessness is predicted to escalate. Welfare time limits are fast approaching. And, HIV/AIDS is continuing to devastate our neighborhoods, especially communities of color. The poor in fact, are at greatest risk, with the recession hitting low-wage workers most, according to economists.

In the city, job losses from September to October are estimated at over 100,000, and in October, unemployment rose to 5.4 percent. A dire prediction is that the unemployment rate may even reach 7 percent by the end of the year, nearly twice as high as it was a year ago. This does not bode well for low-skilled workers. Nor is it encouraging for people who worked at the World Trade Center and who have now joined the ranks of the unemployed.


The argument that now is the time when low income communities are most in need of government assistance has not gone over well with city or state officials. In anticipation of huge revenue losses because of the attacks and the recession, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani very quickly announced that city agencies would face budget cuts of up to 15 percent. Many agencies do not know how they will be affected. Some are holding to last year's spending levels, but others are operating as if the money will not be there at all. That translates into more job losses. Agencies are getting ready to cut staff. In many cases, loss of a staff person could mean that an entire program is dismantled.

In Albany, where member items (the money given to individual legislators to allot at their own discretion) sometimes fund entire programs, the news is little better. On top of a budgetary process that would be comedic if it were not such a sham, the state barely passed re-appropriations of funds to pay for last year's contracts. At the last minute, the governor, senate and assembly agreed to provide $200 million for social services. That may sound like a lot of money, and in truth, no charitable organization wants to appear callous or insensitive to fiscal policy choices at this time. However, $200 million will not go nearly far enough to meet already existing needs.

Normally, the state spends $500 million a year on social services. That leaves many nonprofits wondering how they are to cope with increasing demand. Those working with the most vulnerable population hope that the city does not return to the crisis from which it worked so hard to extricate itself in the 1970's. Nonprofits have always been a crucial safety net for New Yorkers, but they require investment from both government and private citizens to offer the kinds of services we all hope none of us ever require.

While nonprofits encourage city and state governments to take a second look at the quandary of the social services sector, New Yorkers must rally round the charitable nonprofit community. Each person's involvement and support of the nonprofit sector, however small, provides the lifeblood for our larger community - and indeed, our ability to emerge from this recession and the recent disaster as a stronger, more vibrant city.

Dr. Megan McLaughlin is the executive director of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies