The Consequences of Political Incapacitation

by Jim Runyon and Judith Gethner
Illinois Partners for Human Service

While our elected leaders fight one another, Illinois’ most at-risk individuals and families pay the price.

How did Illinois get to this point? After all, we are the Land of Lincoln, the birthplace of the cell phone and web browser. We are the 19th-largest economy in the world, headquarters to some of the largest and most important global corporations. Our vast stretches of fertile land help feed the nation. More than most Midwestern states, we are mitigating the impacts of the manufacturing exodus with a focus on innovation and entrepreneurship.

How is it possible, then—with all this natural good fortune and focused endeavor—that Illinois is now embroiled in the worst human service crisis in memory? Illinois is now a state with padlocked afterschool programs, decimated mental health services, cancelled elder care services and an incomprehensibly long list of other negative impacts that have damaged its social fabric.

For that, we can thank key politicians in Springfield and their refusal to enact a state budget for almost a full year now. As everyone knows, our elected leaders in Springfield are locked in a death match. Each side claims the high ground. Each side has become quite proficient at this game of chicken and assigning blame to the opponent.

Bearing the Burden
But it’s really not a game at all. While they fight, it’s surely not the comfortable who are paying the price. Rather, it’s our state’s most at-risk individuals and families. They are the ones who are bearing the burden of Illinois’ budget fiasco.

  • 85,000 seniors are losing meals on wheels.
  • More than 130,000 people with epilepsy are going without treatment.
  • 15,000 low-income women are at risk of not receiving potentially lifesaving cancer screenings.
  • 10,000 children are now ineligible for childcare, and copays have risen as high as 20 percent.
  • 90 percent of homeless services providers have or will be forced to cut clients, services or staff.
  • There is no state funding for adult education and job training services at a time when the economy is rapidly changing and folks must retrain or fall off the economic map.

In the Peoria area, hundreds of children with autism and their families have been negatively impacted by the closure of The Autism Program (TAP). Until this year, the TAP service network was the largest and most effective autism service delivery system in the nation. All children with autism—regardless of their public or private insurance carrier—could receive early identification and diagnostic services, family supports and community resources, and care coordination leading to prompt and appropriate treatment options. Governor Rauner chose to eliminate TAP from his FY16 budget proposal, and the continuing budget impasse has resulted in the closure of TAP and significant reductions to autism services across the state.

Human Service Heroes
In any crisis, heroes emerge. In this crisis, the heroes are the human service providers across the state who are doing all they can under nearly impossible circumstances. Many providers have signed contracts with the state to deliver human services, but have received little or no money for those services. What’s worse, these providers have no guaranteed assurance that they will ever be paid. To endure, they have slashed salaries, reduced staff, taken on debt and implemented other extraordinary measures to plug the leaks in what feels like a sinking ship of our community’s support system. Their last resort is cutting services, which has been unavoidable in too many cases. But it would be so much worse if not for the inspiring commitment of human service providers who are doing everything and risking everything to keep their doors open.

The irony of all this is that investments in human services actually save the state money in the long run. In his initial State of the Budget address, Governor Rauner recited the statistic that $1 of investment in early childhood intervention returns $7 in benefits. We agree, but the same return on investment applies to other human services as well. Programs to help the elderly and severely disabled stay in their homes are far less expensive than institutionalization. Preventive health programs clearly reduce the state’s Medicaid expenditures. Workforce development returns $5 for every dollar invested. The examples go on and on.

Putting People First
It’s long past time for the Governor and the General Assembly leaders to reach a compromise and pass a budget that puts our most valuable resource—our people—first. Families and communities can no longer afford to be pawns in this grand political chess match. Our elected leaders were sent to Springfield to solve problems and help keep Illinois strong. Protecting the most at-risk among us is a first principle of good government. It is our responsibility to hold accountable those who are entrusted to “eliminate poverty and inequality; assure legal, social and economic justice; provide opportunity for the fullest development of the individual”—as the Preamble to the Constitution of the State of Illinois so eloquently states.

Jim Runyon is Vice President of Strategic Initiatives and Government Affairs at Easter Seals Central Illinois and Chair of Illinois Partners for Human Service. Judith Gethner is Executive Director of Illinois Partners for Human Service. iBi

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