September 9, 2011; Source: PhilanTopic | New York City’s nonprofit Community Service Society (CSS) is a venerable human-service provider, 165 years old, with a history of advocacy and innovation accompanying its service to the poor. Among its accomplishments over the years are the prototype for the free school lunch program, the original tenement laws and the first model tenement in New York, the first shelter for homeless men in the city, and much more. In an odd twist of history, CSS provided significant assistance to the victims and families of the Titanic, and then, almost 90 years later, was among several organizations at the forefront of responding to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

CSS has described the economic malaise affecting people of color and low-income people in general in numerous powerful studies, including its “Unheard Third” series (PDF), its policy briefs on the employment conditions of young black men in NYC (PDF), and its cogent policy proposals, such as one (PDF) that would create economic opportunities for public-housing residents.

In an interview with PhilanTopic, CSS’s David Jones comments on the impact of the 9/11 attacks on the Lower Manhattan economy as well as a topic that CSS has long emphasized: the lack of economic mobility in the New York City workforce, particularly among young African-American men. Jones has strong opinions about philanthropy and has long been known for saying things in sharp, pointed ways that make some people in foundations a bit uncomfortable. Here is his observation about what foundations should be doing to address economic disparities in the U.S.:

There was a time when philanthropy meant providing resources to the poor. But the tax code has been manipulated to the point where much that is called charity now goes to places and institutions that would never qualify as needy—universities with billion-dollar endowments, museums, performing arts organizations—places that the wealthy enjoy and support. Also, many foundations that provide philanthropic support are characterized by boards that usually consist of upper-class white men who have little understanding of or connection to the real poverty that still exists in the city. Foundations have a responsibility to provide long-term support for issues like employment, wages, and poverty. That’s not happening.

—Rick Cohen