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Radical Politics on the Public Dime

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Radical Politics on the Public Dime

New York community organizations siphon off taxpayer money to promote their agendas. Summer 2019
New York
Politics and law

In September 2018, activist groups around New York rushed to denounce the Trump administration for considering making changes to the “public charge” rule for noncitizens. The changes would add food stamps, Medicaid, and federal housing vouchers to the programs that count against immigrants when the government determines their future status. The New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC) staged a protest outside the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side, joined by the African Services Committee and the Chinese-American Planning Council. Executives of the three organizations were arrested after they sat down in the middle of Delancey Street and blocked rush-hour traffic.

New York City has long been fertile ground for political protest, of course, so these events were not unusual—though the city’s protest culture has gone into overdrive since Trump’s election, with rallies, marches, and demonstrations becoming a frequent backdrop around Manhattan. Civil-society groups, along with elected officials, activists, and unions, typically organize these protests, which run the gamut from standard political rallies to civil disobedience. What most New Yorkers don’t realize, though, is that many of the protests, including NYIC’s action last year, aren’t simply the work of civic-minded private citizens. On the contrary: they are funded, sometimes lavishly, by local and state government—that is, by taxpayers. New York is home to a host of such groups, which, in the Trump era, have expanded their charitable missions to include near-constant political activism. Whether they agree or disagree with these efforts, New Yorkers should understand that they’re paying the bill for them.

New York City spends about $95 billion annually. Not counting Medicaid spending, the city allocates about 13 percent of its outlays to human services—including homeless shelters, senior centers, youth recreation, adult literacy, foster care, and many other programs tailored to the needs of New York’s 8.5 million people, 43 percent of whom live below the city-measured poverty line. The city contracts with nonprofit organizations to provide many of these services. Most homeless shelters, for instance, are run by nongovernmental organizations. Similarly, nonprofits provide public defenders to indigent defendants. Individual contracts with these large groups—such as the Lutheran Social Services of Metropolitan New York, Inc., which deals with vulnerable children—can run to hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

Further down the nonprofit food chain, so-called community-based organizations (CBOs) provide neighborhood-oriented and often ethnically focused social services. According to their grant applications, many local CBOs help their clients obtain access to health care, job training, or legal services. Located in Harlem, African Services, for example, receives about $2 million per year to provide legal services, HIV case management, and English classes primarily to African immigrants. The mayor’s office distributes most of this funding, but the city council also bankrolls initiatives devoted to immigrant opportunities, immigrant health, and adult literacy, among other needs. City council members also enjoy their own discretionary funding, totaling about $2 million apiece and known as “member items,” to distribute to local groups as they see fit.

Any nonprofit receiving money from the city is supposed to have a purely charitable purpose, though the boundaries between philanthropy and politics can be fuzzy. Organizations that engage in electoral politics, for instance, can’t receive funding, though funded groups can run voter-registration campaigns. It’s no surprise that politically well-connected groups tend to receive large shares of city funding. For example, the Hispanic Federation describes itself as an umbrella group for Hispanic-oriented social-services organizations. Luis A. Miranda, Jr., an important figure in New York City politics and father of a celebrated Broadway star, founded the organization and maintains close ties with it. With an annual budget of more than $10 million, the Hispanic Federation is a traditional ethnic nonprofit that trades favors at high levels. It doesn’t pretend to have a popular base of support and doesn’t provide direct services to New Yorkers. Yet last year, it received a $1.3 million grant from the city council’s Communities of Color Nonprofit Stabilization Fund, which typically gives much smaller grants to fledgling CBOs to provide training in financial management, assistance in finding board members, or help with information technology.

An even more significant recipient of taxpayer largesse (it receives about $9 million annually) is Make the Road New York, which, according to its website, “builds the power of Latino and working class communities to achieve dignity and justice through organizing, policy innovation, transformative education, and survival services.” Founded by attorneys Andrew Friedman and Oona Chatterjee in 1997, Make the Road characterizes itself as a member-driven organization with more than 15,000 New York City members, almost exclusively Latino immigrants. The group receives millions of dollars in city and state funding annually, ostensibly to run adult literacy classes, “know your rights” clinics, cultural activities, and assorted information sessions.

But Make the Road’s real purpose, to paraphrase its mission statement, is to “build power through organizing.” Leaders of New York’s far-left Working Families Party run the group, which urges its clients to participate in political indoctrination as an implicit condition of receiving aid and encourages them to join as members. Make the Road’s legal structure and leadership closely overlap with Make the Road Action—a 501(c)(4) organization that properly engages in electoral activity and endorsing candidates—to which Make the Road regularly makes contributions in the six-figure range. New York Communities for Change, the successor organization to the disgraced Acorn, also receives money from Make the Road. Friedman and Chatterjee spun off a larger national organization, the Center for Popular Democracy, which receives millions of dollars in donations from the Open Society Foundations, the Ford Foundation, organized labor, and the Rockefeller Foundation—and which operates from the same street address as Make the Road Action, with which it shares overlapping leadership.

Public funding thus fuels an interlocking complex of political organizations on the left, including direct electoral endorsements and campaign work. Democratic elected officials know that they can count on Make the Road to thicken crowds at rallies and stand behind them at press appearances. When Mayor de Blasio announced that he would not permit ICE agents to enter public school buildings, he was surrounded by Make the Road members; when he visited Las Vegas in April, as part of his pre-announcement presidential tour, he met with Make the Road Nevada.

Other nonprofits operate in a similar politicized mode. The election of Donald Trump, and the resulting resistance to it, appears to have erased the old rules that kept publicly funded social-services providers from behaving like political factions. For instance, one week after Trump’s inauguration, NYIC, joining forces with Make the Road, organized a march to protest the administration’s “Muslim ban.” NYIC posted a video showing the leaders of the march holding a large banner reading “No ban, no wall!” with Make the Road and NYIC signs attached. Congressional representatives Joe Crowley and Nydia Velázquez led the marchers in chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho / Donald Trump has got to go!”

Later in 2017, the NYIC and African Communities Together, which received a Communities of Color Nonprofit Stabilization grant, joined a protest outside Trump Tower in honor of World Refugee Day. Blocking the sidewalk and spilling into the street, the protesters chanted, “No hate, no fear / Refugees are welcome here.” When, in January 2018, ICE took into custody Ravi Ragbir—a Trinidadian immigrant with a felony conviction for wire fraud in connection with a subprime mortgage scam—to be deported, New York’s social-justice protest complex swung into action. NYIC and Make the Road, among others, issued immediate calls for action, and protesters, including elected officials, caused a melee on lower Broadway, blocking emergency vehicles.

The next month, ICE arrested an illegal immigrant, who was facing a felony domestic-violence complaint, outside the Bronx criminal courthouse. Lawyers from the Legal Aid Society and Bronx Defenders—both publicly funded, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars annually—staged a walkout from their cases and stood outside chanting, “Say it loud, say it clear / Immigrants are welcome here.” In May, both groups, joined by Make the Road and Brooklyn Defender Services, assembled at City Hall to demand that the state bar ICE from courthouses; they repeated this demand a month later, before the state superior court. These groups are, legally speaking, charitable organizations—funded almost entirely by the taxpayer—that are supposed to provide indigent defense, not to protest federal immigration policy.

At least the public-defender groups can argue that ICE impedes their work when it arrests illegal immigrants on their way to court. But when Make the Road organizes protests outside Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, and JPMorgan Chase—“corporations that stand to benefit from Trump’s anti-immigrant, anti-worker policies”—it’s harder to make the case that the group is pursuing its supposed charitable mission of helping immigrants learn English or get health care. Make the Road led the fight to prevent Amazon from locating a corporate headquarters in Queens. “This is a huge victory. We are thrilled,” exulted Make the Road co-executive director Deborah Axt after the tech giant pulled out, deciding that the headache wasn’t worth it.

“Public funding fuels an interlocking complex of political organizations on the left, including direct electoral endorsements.”

Similarly, NYIC, which receives approximately $1 million annually from the city to fulfill its stated purpose “to unite immigrants, members and allies so that all New Yorkers can thrive,” cosponsored the 2019 New York City Women’s March and makes official statements at pro-abortion rallies. “Senate Republicans aim to steal health-care coverage from tens of millions of immigrants,” explained Max Hadler, NYIC director of health-care policy, at a 2017 Planned Parenthood rally. “As we move ahead with this resistance in spite of racist rhetoric from the White House,” he continued, “so many immigrants excel as positive examples and unwavering pillars of the U.S. society.”

The nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court drew intense opposition from New York’s politicized nonprofit world. NYIC sponsored a protest, marching on the Yale Club in midtown Manhattan (Kavanaugh attended Yale). But it wasn’t just NYIC. On the first day of Kavanaugh’s Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings—before any allegations of sexual assault by the nominee had been made public—70 people were arrested inside the chamber for disruptive behavior. Their actions were clearly coordinated, as each protester waited until the previous one was dragged out before shouting imprecations at the nominee. The first protester was Linda Sarsour, nationally prominent as a cohead of the Women’s March but also a longtime fixture in New York City protest politics as the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York. Generously funded by taxpayers, her organization offers language classes and naturalization preparation, and pursues “law enforcement accountability” and an end to “discriminatory policing practices.”

Later in the confirmation cycle, after accusations of sexual assault had been leveled against Kavanaugh, two women captured national headlines when they confronted Senator Jeff Flake in an elevator, screaming that they had been raped, in an effort to get him to vote against the nominee. Media celebrated the women, but it’s noteworthy that the older of the two, and the leader, was Ana Maria Archila, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, who, apparently, still serves as executive director of Make the Road: it is her signature that appears, on the line marked “President,” on the organization’s most recent state filing, dated October 20, 2018—a few weeks after her elevator encounter.

Sarsour and Archila are professional activists, skilled organizers, and adept at seizing the dramatic moment. Their training was honed through well-compensated work for what are ostensibly municipal social-services providers, but these organizations function, all too often, as taxpayer-funded cadres for social-justice activism. These left-wing groups develop talent that goes on to run political campaigns, work for elected officials, staff government agencies, and run for elected office. New York’s multibillion-dollar human-services complex generally provides the aid that it promises, but it has also become the operating environment for radicals, posing as social workers, who siphon off public money to promote their political agenda.

Photo: Members of the publicly funded New York Immigration Coalition hold a news conference to protest President Trump’s “Muslim ban.” (DON EMMERT/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

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