Improving Access to NYC Social Services in Response to COVID-19 and Rising Demands for Racial Equity
Policy Brief & Recommendations by Lily Z
Due to COVID-19’s highly contagious nature, many in-person social service centers in New York City have been closed or have implemented limited hours. In addition to the friction caused by existing accessibility barriers, the rise of civil protest and the ensuing curfews further confine New Yorkers to their homes. As a result, New Yorkers depend, now more than ever, on digital accessibility as a means to ensure that their rights to health, safety, and civic engagement are upheld.
New York City is a global leader in placing digital equity at the core of city planning; yet, there are still areas where New Yorkers face barriers to accessing city services and programs. The pandemic has magnified existing inequities that stem, in part, from the effects of past racist and classist practices. For example, digital redlining resulted in a failure to invest sufficiently in social services and internet infrastructure in low-income and majority non-white communities. Historically, broadband was the primary mode of access to the internet. It is now increasingly common to depend on smartphones and wireless internet for access to social programs. This is why one element of New York City’s effort to reduce inequity involves implementing universal public wifi across the city. The city’s Deputy Chief Technology Officer, Joshua Breitbart, said in this past year’s Digital Inclusion conference,
… The ultimate vision is that the infrastructure, the technology, the tools, and the public information are there in place for every New Yorker to make use of that technology, to participate in the economy and the storytelling process, and to be a part of shaping that future. 
Accessibility in NYC During COVID-19 & Civil Protest
New York’s 2019 City Charter asserts, “All residents need dignified access to City services, whatever their abilities or language preferences. Services should meet or exceed accessibility standards...”. Additionally, NYC is required by federal law (namely, the Civil Rights Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act) to provide equal access to public spaces and services. Yet, in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, many New Yorkers have been unable to access essential public benefits including those provided by the Human Resources Administration. As nonprofit New York Legal Assistance Group reports, current access barriers include frequent crashes for the NYC Access HRA app and long waits on the HRA “Infoline” phone line. With the app instability, and with unreliable HRA fax machines, the absence of an HRA contact email address excludes some individuals who would otherwise submit documentation for benefits in person.
The COVID-19 crisis exacerbates the effects of digital disenfranchisement and necessitates an even greater effort to ensure equitable distribution of public services and resources to underserved communities. People of color, people with disabilities, and the sizable population of aging adults in NYC are at particular risk of being excluded from civic participation due to access issues related to ability and/or digital inequity. The following policy recommendations would be funded by revising the upcoming city budget. As City Comptroller Stringer has proposed, reallocating just five percent of the upcoming FY21 NYPD budget would free up nearly $265 million towards vital projects like increasing access to social services.
In addition to working with scarce resources and services due to the pandemic, Black Americans are responding to widely publicized acts of police violence against members of their community, and are leading the movement demanding reform to protect and support Black lives. The Change the NYPD campaign is supported by numerous well-respected NYC nonprofits and was just endorsed by over 230 current and former DiBlasio staffers. Change the NYPD calls for the reduction of the immense NYPD budget. Even a small percentage of the NYPD budget, diverted toward social programs, could fund these policy recommendations and help prevent the variety of access issues that New Yorkers are currently battling. Funds redirected toward programs like LinkNYC would allow for the expansion of access to wifi and other technology that serve to make sure that all New Yorkers can participate fully in society. Along with the primary recommendation of an HRA access overhaul, I suggest increasing collaboration between public, private, and civil society entities in service of building a broader movement to advance accessibility in NYC.
Proposed Policy Actions
Visit the following link to view a partial list of online NYC access resources: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1kqOi_3ceoRZ74-BlbyRGkfllG4j_wKRvJ_pdfx2AWnI/edit?usp=sharing