How Well Do You Sleep While Someone Freezes Outside Your Window?

11 months ago Jake Boyle

While Illinoisans may rightfully debate the merits of the budget passed by the State Assembly back over the 4th of July weekend, those of us in the social service industry breathed a sigh of relief when it was passed.

In a field used to stretching limited resources, the uncertainty caused by the two years of budget impasse pushed the field to the brink, sparking statewide reductions in services and staff. The immensely imperfect deal has stopped the bleeding, if only temporarily, and provided the profession the opportunity to survey the damage.

Although the budget deal will hardly begin to address the devastation wrought on the state’s social service apparatus, it will allow organizations to at least begin operating with a knowledge of what limited state funds are available. With a budget in place, social service workers know what funds they have available to them and can make markedly stronger decisions about how to allocate them.

As the social service sector takes a moment to catch its breath, Illinoisans and Americans in general should take upcoming state budget debates and the looming 2018 Gubernatorial election as opportunities to make serious decisions regarding the role that the social services play in their lives and the value they place on the well-being of their fellow community members.

Elected Governor in 2014, Bruce Rauner came to power partially on his promise to keep taxes low, but mostly as a rejection of the entrenched Democratic political elites whose mismanagement of the state pension program was the impetus for the state’s money problems. In their endorsement of Rauner over then-Governor Pat Quinn, the Chicago Tribune said that “Despite [Quinn’s] pledges to ‘cut, cut, cut,’ spending has increased.  Yet Illinois still manages to cheat schoolchildren, university students, providers who have delivered health and social services to our most vulnerable – and cloutless – fellow citizens.”

Upon being elected, Rauner responded in kind by introducing a budget that managed to both “cut, cut, cut” and cheat our most vulnerable – and cloutless – fellow citizens. Rauner’s proposed cuts included $1.5 billion to the state’s medicaid program and a 31% reduction in the state’s higher education funding.  He also planned to cut mental health services by $82 million in addition to a litany of programs dedicated to individuals living with special needs.

What’s more, Rauner called for a 44% reduction in the HIV Lump Sum, the state’s primary funding stream for HIV services, down nearly $12 million from the meager budget passed by Quinn in 2014.  Beyond his budget proposals, Rauner suspended $26 million in public grants to social service agencies in 2015, including $3.4 million to Immigrant Integrative Services, $1.6 million in Addiction Prevention, $1 million for Autism and $3.1 million to Teen REACH programs devoted to after-school tutoring and cultural activities for children aged 7 to 17.

When Rauner’s initial proposals were rejected by the legislature, his subsequent budgets would amend these initial draconian proposals slightly. Still Rauner’s budgets all bore the same message: corrupt Democrats torpedoed the state’s economy and poor people must suffer the consequences.

While politicians in Springfield played politics with people’s lives, many in the state viewed the impasse with distant annoyance, but little else. According to a poll conducted by Southern Illinois University’s Paul Simon Institute for Public Policy, nearly two-thirds of Illinoisans felt that the lack of a budget did not directly impact their lives.

Meanwhile, the lives of Illinois’ most vulnerable citizens and the social servants who supported them hung in the balance. In early 2017 Lutheran Child and Family Services of River Forest in the western suburbs laid off 100 staffers, about a quarter of their workforce, due to the $5 million they were owed by the state.

In 2016, the statewide community mental health provider Family Counseling Center had to shutter six different facilities, in addition to laying off 36 employees and canceling vacation and paid time off.  The Community Behavioral Healthcare Association of Illinois found that by June of last year, three-quarters of their 65 member agencies had both laid off staff and cut services, with one Cairo agency shutting down completely.

The Women’s Center, a Carbondale-based domestic violence facility, was forced to take out a $250,000 loan to keep its lights on and continue providing services. While the state suffered, Rauner continued to harp on the importance of fiscal responsibility.

Fiscal responsibility is, of course, doublespeak for cutting taxes on the rich and depriving poor folk of needed services. Rauner’s attempts to starve Illinois into a Libertarian hellscape forced legislators from his own party to cross the aisle and join with Democrats to pass the aforementioned budget deal. This was no small risk on their part, as an important aspect of Rauner’s rise to power in Illinois has been his massive donations to statewide Republican campaigns: the $16 million in donations from his private campaign fund accounted for 95 percent of the State Republican Party’s fundraising in 2016.

While many Illinoisans are looking forward to the prospect of voting him out of office in 2018, Rauner has the resources to cling to power for a very long time. Making matters murkier, the Democrats seem poised to fight the Republicans’ plutocrat with one of their own.

J.B. Pritzker, a venture capitalist and scion to the Pritzker family – owners of the Hyatt hotel chain and longstanding members of the Chicago elite – is the frontrunner for the Democratic Gubernatorial nomination and is as well known for his philanthropic efforts as he is for his uncomfortable entanglements with the Democratic establishment.

If Pritzker makes it to Springfield in 2018, it would mean that Illinois’ most vulnerable citizens would once again hang their hopes for survival on the benevolence of the billionaire class. Pritzker’s campaign website claims that if elected he “will not only focus on restoring funding for [critical social services] so that families have the tools they need to succeed, but will also undo the damage done by Bruce Rauner’s failures,” which is good. It’s certainly better than the cruel and unusual punishment Rauner has wrought on the state since coming to power.

Pritzker also advocates for a progressive tax system and increased investment in education, which would certainly go a long way towards cleaning Rauner’s stench out of Springfield. These proposals are nice, but right now they’re just copy on a rich man’s website. As it stands, it’s tough for me to see Pritzker making it to Springfield by outspending Rauner and enacting the progressive agenda that the state needs. Venture capitalists don’t make great revolutionaries.

Yet even if Pritzker is elected and is able to bring the state’s social services back to pre-Rauner levels, that’s hardly a feat worth celebrating. Social services still took a beating under Quinn, who slashed funding by nearly a quarter between 2010 and 2014. While Pritzker can say all the right things about funding social services, the politicization of providing for our neighbors is growing exceedingly crass.

We can argue until we’re blue in the face about parties and leaders, ideologies and isms, but it’s worthless if there are nearly 6,000 people sleeping on the streets of Chicago on any given night.  Social services are essential to the survival of the state, no matter the cost.

Having spent the entirety of my time working in the field amidst the economic chaos and confusion of the Quinn and Rauner administrations, I’ve been able to see firsthand the positive impact that social service workers can have on the lives of the people they serve while operating on next to nothing. Once you give these individuals the proper resources that both they and the people they serve deserve, you strengthen the fabric of your society. This line of thinking may not sit well with the fiscal responsibility crowd or neoliberal decimal counters but fuck those people in the face.

This is a matter of how well you sleep at night with the knowledge that someone is freezing to death right outside your window. No politician or party in Illinois is worthy of your support without a full commitment to the well-being of all of the state’s citizens.

We’ve gone too long pretending that we’re doing all we can for the most vulnerable in our state and settling for the least-worst option is less than what our community deserves.