A hundred people filled the Bushwick Campus auditorium for an event last Wednesday night, half workshop and half rally, called in response to massive looming cuts to federal social service programs. Organized by community members alongside local nonprofits and human services organizations, the presentation sought to inform and inspire, but also to give community members tools they could use to effect real change in their own neighborhoods.
The meeting was one of many planned over the next two months, as advocates battle proposed cuts in funding for social services in federal and city budgets. On one hand, organizing merely repeats the annual ritual, especially on the municipal front, of proposed cuts, community complaints and last-minute restorations. But advocates say the cumulative effects of years of austerity from Washington, Albany and City Hall means that the latest round of reductions will cut deeper into bare bones.
The cuts in question at the Bushwick Event were to the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG), a federal program that funds more than 250 community organizations in the city with $31 million a year, serving tens of thousands of people. It involves funding that is distributed by the Division of Community Services on a state level, and locally by the city Department of Youth and Community Development.
By using flexible funding that can be contracted out to local organizations, the reasoning goes, the money will be most effectively used to target local issues. CSBG funds legal aid, English classes and literacy programs, immigration assistance, HIV/AIDS support, domestic violence prevention, housing assistance, and educational and employment support programs for kids, among others. It is slated to be cut in half.
In Brooklyn alone, over 5,000 families rely on CSBG-funded programs. In the auditorium last Wednesday, the audience was asked how many had received services at one point from a social services organization. Nearly all raised their hands.
The event at the Bushwick Campus, one of many held or planned across the five boroughs, felt as much like a community organizer training as it did a rally. Attendees were instructed on best practices for raising awareness and getting their neighbors involved
"These services and the funding that we get is in danger – it's going to be very drastic and very negative," Theo Oshiro, an organizer from Make The Road NY, told the crowd, bouncing between Spanish and English. "It depends on you to make sure these cuts don't go through."
The going idea in the room was that if enough people made enough noise, the cuts to the CSBG would be reversed. Organizers explained how to effectively advocate, connect and create a social movement through very traditional means: petition, protest and pressure on elected officials. CSBG cuts have been on the table every year since 2009 – proposed during budget season and then reversed each year in response to a massive outpouring. This was a fight that had been fought before.
Communities have also been organizing in response to the Bloomberg Administration's proposed city budget for the next year, which cuts heavily into education, after-school, and shelter programs for youth, and funding for senior citizen programs.
"The City's programs and services for children and youth – from early childcare, to public schools, libraries and after-school community programs – have suffered some of the deepest cuts..." wrote the City Council, in their response to Bloomberg's proposed budget. "It is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the steady erosion in these services and the impact it is having – especially on low and moderate-income families and communities of color that are least able to access alternatives."
While the mayor proposes a budget every year, where and how much to spend is ultimately up to the City Council, who must pass a budget by the end of June. Many of the same programs are cut each year by the mayor, only to be reversed by the Council.
This script is no secret – Christine Quinn, speaker of the City Council, addressed the issue directly last week to Bloomberg News, referring to the $68.7 billion budget negotiations as the "annual dance" between mayor and Council. Politically, the dance can be a "win-win" for the mayor and City Council, where the former can be congratulated for his cuts and fiscal responsibility, and the latter can heroically come to the rescue by restoring funding.
In total, the budget proposal would eliminate after school programs for 25,000 children and childcare for 14,000. It is unclear whether these cuts are part of the traditional budget "dance," or if they will eventually be left out by the City Council.
"This year the dialogue is more direct and more urgent," explained Jonah Gensler, associate director of the Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement House. Gensler's organization, which serves approximately 10,000 people per year in North America's largest public housing complex, will see major funding cuts under the Bloomberg budget proposal.
Allison Sesso, deputy executive director of the Human Services Council, a social services advocacy organization, cautions that the budget ritual, while familiar, is being played out against a winnowed budget baseline for many programs.
"What happens now is things get tinkered with," she explained, "if it used to be $1 million, now it's $750,000."
The Human Services Council released a report last January that outlined more than $800 million in cuts to social services that have happened on various levels of government in the last two years.
Organizers say the mayor's budget proposal will cut heavily into after-school and childcare programs, particularly in public housing developments. They have since been working to raise awareness among the families that rely on their services through a series of town hall meetings, organized with City Council members who represent affected developments.
"These are hardworking families that don't have options in terms of hiring babysitters or not working to care for their kids," Gensler said. "They don't have other options, so they're very concerned."
"The mayor is taking care of a lot of interests," Gessler added, "but he hasn't taken care of us."
One complaint about the budget process voiced by many working in human services was that the way cuts force nonprofits to compete for funding.
"We've come together collectively to say – you can't pit us collectively against each other," Sesso said, referring to the scramble for funding that would ensue if both the city and federal cuts were to go through. The Human Services Council is part of a coalition of nonprofits that have been advocating together against the proposed 50 percent cut to CSBG. They argue that the budget should be balanced through ending corporate tax loopholes, and not by eliminating services for low- and middle-income New Yorkers.
"There are things that they can do that aren't on the table," added Sesso, arguing that investments in human services provide a net benefit for the economy as well.
"Nonprofits are a source of employment, but they provide work support for others," she explained, adding that the after-school, childcare, classes and clinics provided all make it easier for working families to keep working.
The CSBG meeting in Bushwick ended with a chance for community members to voice their opinions on the cuts, in English, Spanish or a mix of the two. Many wanted to emphasize the impact these organizations have had on their lives, by teaching English, or helping with legal disputes, immigration papers, or housing issues.
"The community organized," proclaimed one speaker, "is the best weapon against these kinds of draconian cuts."