The approach to poverty in American politics generally—and in public child welfare specifically—has always been influenced by the widespread understanding of poverty as primarily a moral and personal failing, rather than a structural issue.
Jeremy Kohomban & David Collins write:
“Across the United States, nonprofits struggle to pay competitive wages, especially in the human services sector. New York nonprofits have the third-highest prevalence of low wages in the private sector, behind food service and retail. This is in spite of the fact that its human services workforce is highly skilled and highly educated—two-thirds of workers have some college education, and close to half hold bachelor’s degrees or higher. One factor in the widespread acceptance of these low wages may be that, across the state, 82 percent of these workers are women, and 50 percent are people of color. Both of these groups typically earn less than their counterparts who are white, male, or both. Both women and people of color also tend to come into our workforce with higher levels of student debt, making low pay all the more burdensome.
The negative effects of poor pay are wide-ranging and institutionalized, and they pose an existential threat to the nonprofit sector as it currently exists. Following the sudden bankruptcy of Federation Employment and Guidance Service (FEGS) in 2014—an 81-year-old, $250 million human services nonprofit in New York City—the Human Services Council’s Commission on Nonprofit Closures reported that the systematic underfunding of nonprofits has led to “salaries so low that many nonprofit employees depend on safety net programs, such as food stamps and Medicaid. It also results in inadequate investment to keep facilities safe and in good repair.” Ann Goggins Gregory & Don Howard describe this underfunding as a “starvation cycle,” where nonprofits settle into a “low pay, make do, and do without” culture.
This dynamic is bad for everyone—for children and families, for communities, and certainly for employees. It is also frustrating for public agencies charged with achieving results via contracts with the nonprofit sector and for the taxpayers who foot the bill.
So how did we get here?”