Friday, April 22, 2016

The Real Cost of Gamesmanship

In 2012 at a tax policy conference in Chicago, sponsored by the George W. Bush Institute, moderator Margaret Spellings, former U.S. Secretary of Education, asked Bruce Rauner how people could build a "political constituency for change." This was his response.

"We will crush our economy if we try to spend money on both high-cost, inefficient, bureaucratic, heavily unionized government and a social safety net to help the disadvantaged," Rauner said. "I think we can drive a wedge issue in the Democratic Party on that topic and bring the folks who say, 'You know what, for our tax dollars, I'd rather help the disadvantaged, the handicapped, the elderly, the children in poverty, instead of directing tax dollars to the Service Employees International Union or "AF-Scammy," his favorite way of referring to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, known as AFSCME for short.

As it turns out four years later, that is the exact strategy he has used in an attempt to enact his turnaround agenda in Illinois. No acceptance of the turnaround agenda? No budget. If Democrats in Illinois don’t fold then “the disadvantaged, the handicapped, the elderly, the children in poverty” will suffer and they will be blamed. The political fallout will be so overwhelming they will have no choice but to capitulate. Do you remember seeing that in his campaign ads? I must have missed it. Here’s where we stand to date according to Andy Shaw of Illinois’ Better Government Association since higher education and a significant portion of Illinois social services has been starved of cash.

  • 177 layoffs at Eastern Illinois University.
  • 70 human service agencies in Southern Illinois cutting programs.
  • 23 counties suspending efforts to reduce juvenile incarceration.
  • 84,000 seniors losing Meals on Wheels and other outreach.
  • 15,000 women losing access to cervical and breast cancer screening.
  • 130,000 epileptics losing treatment.
  • 57,000 police officers losing training.
  • A $6.2 billion increase in state debt by June 30.
  • $25 billion in unpaid bills by 2019.

Not all results of this catastrophic war of wills are so neatly catalogued. The news is sprinkled with anecdotes but unless you are in that group “the disadvantaged, the handicapped, the elderly, the children in poverty” you don’t really feel it. We seem to say: it’s happening, it’s awful, and I’m glad it’s not me. Maybe that is human nature.

Before I came to the shack yesterday morning there was a story on Chicago Public Radio of a man in Evanston with cerebral palsy whose electric wheel chair; patched with duct tape, telephone cords, and coat hangers is broken, and can’t be fixed because the local repairman of such devices, whose business is dominated by people who live on state assistance, has not been reimbursed by the state in so long he cannot afford to buy parts. His parts supplier will no longer extend him credit because he has no faith the state will ever pay.

As my coffee brewed, I moved freely about. I went down the steps to the mud room, stepped outside to get the Tribune, came back and fried eggs, made toast. Over my radio in the kitchen I heard the interviewer ask a question and then was struck by the man’s reply; it was the garbled tortured response of a man whose words, whose very voice, have been taken away by his disease. His words were “translated” and amplified by his long time personal aide. He is frustrated, she says, and very angry. He can no longer get into his bathroom without the chair and be transferred to his toilet with her assistance. His life as he knew it, his capacity to live independently, is severely impacted by his chair not working. He’s but one victim of a political standoff soon to be in its eleventh month. The next time you see Bruce Rauner or Michael Madigan as talking heads on TV try if you can to think of that man and his aide struggling to make his voice heard and with everyday life in his one bedroom apartment in Evanston.

I may feel more than most about the decisions being made by private agencies whose programs are dying, because I can imagine the discussions taking place. The meetings. Board members staring down at spreadsheets. Executive Directors reluctantly agreeing that the only option is to lay off staff and close programs they have spent their careers building. Motions made and seconded.  Roll call votes.  With that comes closing offices, copier leases, support staff, all the stuff that goes with it. Taking it all apart. Saving money by not serving people your mission it is to help. It’s painful. And is it necessary? Can Illinois afford to ignore the needs of those people?

October of 2015 Youth Services Network of Rockford announced at a press conference the closing of it’s ReDeploy Illinois program in Winnebago County which served delinquent youth and their families prior to their incarceration in Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice due to a lack of state payments to the county. The program closed despite support voiced by their local state representative, state’s attorney, Police Chief and the Mayor of Rockford.

January 22nd , 2016 Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, after carrying the State of Illinois for seven months to the tune of $6 million dollars, closed 30 programs laid off 7450 staff, but more importantly ended services for 4,700 Illinois citizens including seniors, the drug and alcohol addicted, recently released prisoners, and dysfunctional families.

January 30th, 2016 Children’s Home and Aid of Illinois suspended crisis services for troubled youth and in addition close their Englewood office which operated a special program for homeless youth.

April 7th, 2016 Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House was forced to lay off 117 staff in the absence of state funding, primarily in the area of senior services, but also in programs serving youth and families.

I know either the directors or key staff in all those agencies. I can imagine the impact on them professionally and personally. Someone in the community, not aware of the pressure that led to those actions, will call their agency and ask for help, either for themselves or someone they are assisting, and that call will end up in the director’s office. My friends will find themselves saying words to this effect:
“Sorry. We don’t do that anymore. We just couldn’t afford to keep it open. I’m sorry.”

“You’re kidding. That’s what you do. Who is going to help these people now?”

“No one that I know of. That help is just not available anymore.”

Some of these cuts make the news and some don’t. It is hard for proud established organizations that rely in part on the good will and perception of their community to risk appearing financially vulnerable. But come on. Who wouldn’t be vulnerable going into the eleventh month of no money from your primary funder? How much reserve and line of credit availability are you expected to have?

I don’t know if we are unaware of what is happening or aware and uncaring. In either case hue and cry is not working.  It’s all politics to Madigan and Rauner. It seems that the people affected; the kids and families, the elderly, the handicapped-don’t matter. It’s hard to say that. But what are we left to conclude?

Don’t tell us those programs aren’t needed because we know they are. Don’t tell us they don’t work because we see them in action. We know they work. There is a fallacy in what is happening in Illinois. The fallacy is that Illinois will be better having not spent money in these areas. Think this through.

The February 14th edition of the Chicago Tribune covered Governor Rauner's announcement earlier in the week that he intends to shut down the Kewanee youth detention center serving males in Kewanee. It’s a good move. The juvenile version of state prison is overbuilt, and it was difficult to attract the kind of staff needed to serve these young males, 43% of whom are from the Chicago area, to work in Kewanee. AFSCME will try to protect those state jobs, there is a process, but I suspect in the end it will happen. The John Howard Association, the ACLU, and youth advocates across the state support this action.

But there is a key point to consider in that story. Juvenile Justice spokesman Michael Theodore, who estimates a saving of more than $14 Million a year from Kewanee's closing, says a major focus for these kids will be after care “our version of parole.” It involves specialists who work with young ex offenders after their release, connecting them with local community organizations and other assistance that could keep them from committing crimes again and getting sent back to prison. “It’s a proactive effort to rehabilitate these kids closer to home,”  said Theodore.

Rehabilitation, proactive, community organizations? Wait. Didn’t CHASI just suspend its program in Englewood? And Rockford the same?  Aren’t youth programs that offer proactive programs and rehabilitation, drug and alcohol treatment and prevention, being absolutely whacked, gutted by the Illinois budget fiasco? Do you expect those agencies you reference to be there when this is over, eager to ramp programs back up with promises of state money? First you take them apart and then you expect them to be there when you need them? Is that logical?

Pay attention as well to where the cuts are first taking place. Rockford, Englewood, Southern Illinois, East St. Louis. the first programs to be cut are those where the state is the largest funder. Where is that? It’s where local government cannot afford to fund social services. Where no local levy is collected for mental health services. It’s where the United Way is weak. It’s in rural areas. Cuts start in the poorest areas of Illinois where people need it the most. The geographic and economic inequality of resource availability in Illinois continues to grow. It’s now not only your school system. It’s social services as well.  It’s the new Illinois. I guess we should get used to it?

You can’t bully your way to fiscal reform by challenging your political opponent to a contest in which community agencies and institutions are the weapons of choice. You may choose to ruin your own political future, but should you be allowed to take our system for serving the people who need us down in what amounts to a duel?

A duel? Hey. Maybe that’s not such a bad idea.

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