170 Years of Fighting Poverty

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

By crafting innovative policies and solutions to problems faced by low-income communities, the Community Service Society (CSS) has made New York a better place to live for all New Yorkers.  Earlier this week, CSS celebrated its 170th anniversary with an event at New York’s Gotham Hall where we honored some of those who have contributed to supporting CSS and its foremost constituency – the city’s low-income individuals and families.

Our tradition of enabling, empowering, and promoting opportunities for poor families and individuals to develop their full potential to contribute to society goes back to the 1840s.

Today, CSS coordinates the state’s health care ombuds program, Community Health Advocates, guiding New Yorkers through the health insurance maze of enrolling and using coverage.  Our Retired & Senior Volunteer Program – the largest in the country – mobilized over 4,000 trained volunteers last year – older adults – who provided over one million hours of service throughout the city.  Our voter registration drives empower people to participate in the civic life of the city by voting.  We bring legal challenges to protect the rights of the poor.  Our Benefits Plus Learning Center provides training and technical assistance to both professionals and the public.

Legacy of Achievements

The Community Service Society has a long legacy of achievements.  In 1862, we launched the drive for pure milk laws as well as organizing the medical facility that is now the Hospital for Special Surgery, the nation’s foremost orthopedic hospital.  We organized the New York School of Social Work in 1898 – now the Columbia University School of Social Work.  We set up the prototype for the national free school-lunch program in 1913 and laid the groundwork for the state’s Old Age Assistance Act in 1930 – the forerunner of Social Security.

CSS conducts rigorous research on critical issues affecting low-income New Yorkers and we use our research to drive advocacy and policy change.  In the last decade, our credibility has put issues on the map ranging from the crisis in black male joblessness to disconnected youth.  Our research tracking rent burdens and the loss of affordable housing are widely relied on.  And, more recently, we drew press coverage for our work uncovering the declining opportunities for black and Latino public high school graduates at the top-tier senior colleges at CUNY. 
 
CSS provided $5 million of financial assistance to help New Yorkers who lost jobs and family members as result of the World Trade Center disaster.

In 2002, CSS initiated “The Unheard Third,” an annual survey of New Yorkers, the only regular polling of low-income opinion in the United States.

CSS launched the New York Reentry Roundtable in 2005, a monthly forum for reentry advocates, focusing on legislative reform to address obstacles faced by formerly incarcerated individuals.  As an outgrowth of the Roundtable, CSS established the annual Advocacy Day, which enables stakeholders to meet in Albany with key legislators and staff.  Advocacy Day participants educate legislators about the Roundtable’s legislative agenda, which includes bills focused on eradicating barriers to reentry and on easing some of the challenges faced by people who are currently incarcerated.

CSS Gets Things Done

Just last month, CSS was instrumental in the successful agreement on paid sick leave legislation by the City Council, providing this crucial benefit for the first time for over a million New Yorkers, many of them low-wage workers.

Also last month, at the second mayoral forum co-sponsored by CSS, featuring candidates discussing their vision for the future of public housing in the city, all five major Democratic candidates pledged that, if elected mayor, they will end the current policy of requiring the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) to pay the city nearly $100 million annually out of its federal operating funds - $75 million annually for special police services that the NYPD provides free to private landlords under “Operation Clean Halls,” and another $23 million for PILOT payments in lieu of taxes from which many nonprofit housing providers are exempt.  This is a longstanding policy that CSS has advocated should end. 

CSS utilizes a combination of research, advocacy, court challenges, direct support, and community involvement to effect fundamental changes that improve the lives of low-income families, school children, health care patients, immigrants, and poor people throughout our history. 

  As we look to the future, we still see one in five New Yorkers living in poverty, a public school system that shortchanges children of color, a battle – hopefully being won - for access to affordable health care, and the continuing loss of affordable housing in the city.

There is much to be done.  And, as we have for 170 years, we at the Community Service Society intend to make our presence felt in the ongoing struggle for a fairer and better New York City.

Issues Covered

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