The Community Service Society’s (CSS) tradition of empowering and promoting opportunities for poor families and individuals to develop their full potential to contribute to society goes back to the 1840s. Last 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.
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 mobilized over 4,000 trained volunteers last year, providing over one million hours of service throughout the city. Our voter registration drives empower people to participate in the civic life of the city. Our Benefits Plus Learning Center provides training and technical assistance to both professionals and the public.
CSS 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. 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; research we use 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. 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 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.
Recently, 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.
Last month, at the second mayoral forum co-sponsored by CSS, 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, and another $23 million for PILOT payments in lieu of taxes from which many nonprofit housing providers are exempt. This is a policy that CSS has long advocated should end.
By crafting innovative policies and solutions to problems faced by low-income communities, CSS has made New York a better place to live for all New Yorkers. But there is still much to be done: one in five New Yorkers live in poverty, the public school system shortchanges children of color, the battle for access to affordable health care, and continuing loss of affordable housing in the city.