New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ administration would have you believe that we must choose between funding social services and assisting asylum seekers.
This is a false choice, because making real, permanent investments in our social services infrastructure and workforce would be the best thing the city could do to improve new New Yorkers’ long-term prospects.
When the administration argues for across-the-board cuts to an already deeply fragile sector — one that has been perennially asked to do more with less — it demonstrates the same short-sightedness that has led it to set poverty wages for social services workers in city contracts, undermining the very institutions that have the expertise, infrastructure, care, and compassion to respond to crises.
Every day, University Settlement partners with thousands of families and people of all ages on the Lower East Side and in Brooklyn, in responsive programs that include free and low-cost early childhood education — forging relationships, building connections to resources and creating access to opportunity.
These services, provided by NYC’s many settlement houses and peer nonprofits, are one of the most important ways we collectively address our city’s crushing economic inequality.
The administration’s proposed cuts present a cruel irony: slashing funding for social services means reduced services for all our communities, while funding nonprofits to serve asylum seekers would increase our capacity to serve all New Yorkers.
The true crisis is this administration’s ongoing dereliction of our social services sector, which is ready-built to do this work and better positioned to do it than are many of the for-profit companies the city is contracting with.
In fact, we’re doing it already, even as the city loudly fantasizes about cutting us to the bone.
Nonprofits have filled critical gaps in serving people seeking asylum as a natural and necessary extension of their work. But our sector requires serious funding to sustain and expand services: 96% of our organizations have been providing services to asylum seekers entirely or partially out of pocket.
University Settlement’s innovative Butterflies program provides mental health services to young children, strengthening families. Since its inception in 2006, we’ve steadily expanded its reach, and last year it engaged 530 families in our neighborhoods with social and emotional support.
As young learners across the city navigate the post-COVID mental health crisis, Butterflies is exactly the type of program we should be investing in, and the ability of organizations like ours to develop programs that meet community need is what makes us perfectly positioned to effectively welcome new arrivals.
Last year 10% of the children receiving clinical mental health services through Butterflies were from migrant families who have recently arrived in New York, many of them seeking asylum.
Michelle Tirado, a peer advocate in University Settlement Society’s Family & Youth Peer Support program, has personally partnered with hundreds of families seeking asylum in the last year. She sees the matter simply: “Where you come from doesn’t matter, we are all human. Asylum seekers don’t make their choices lightly, and they’ve been on a very difficult road just to get here.”
Having community-based navigators like Michelle who can connect with asylum seekers in their own languages and help them get settled is a great, basic response to new arrivals — one that’s threatened by the administration’s proposed cuts.
When Mayor Adams comments that this wave of migration will “destroy New York City,” we wonder whether his administration understands NYC, or believes in it at all.
It’s said that governments and politicians should never “waste a crisis” — that emergencies create the conditions necessary to push through changes that would otherwise be difficult to accomplish through the normal order.
While the way the administration has responded to the wave of asylum seekers over the last few months has often felt more chaotic than strategic, it has also given us a clear view of the administration’s animating priorities — one that has us wondering whether crippling our sector is seen as a feature rather than a bug.
The administration says we can’t afford to help while also sustaining NYC’s world-class human services sector. The truth is we can’t afford a response founded on scarcity that causes further damage. We have the capacity, and the responsibility, to rise to this occasion. We’ve done it before, and we must do it again.