Illinois axes help for the poor

July 29, 2009

Alison McKenna and Kirstin Roberts report on the devastating impact of Illinois' budget cuts.

THE "DOOMSDAY" budget didn't pass the Illinois legislature--but the cuts are devastating just the same.

On July 16, legislators passed a state budget for fiscal year 2010. It didn't include the threatened 50 percent cuts in human services funding, so the people of Illinois are being told to breathe a sigh of relief.

But the new budget still guts education spending, especially for early childhood programs. It passes on billions of dollars in debt to next year's budget, raids state workers' pension funds to pay the state's bills, and will potentially cause the layoff of thousands of state workers.

The legislature passed a temporary plan that includes "borrowing" $3.5 billion from state workers' pension programs, all of which will have to be repaid with interest in the next five years. And who, you may ask, will get the estimated $1 billion in interest payments? You guessed it--the banks and investors who buy up the "pension notes" that the state is borrowing against today.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn stated that given the potential funding shortfalls in this budget, he also intends to ask the AFSCME union to reopen its contract and accept furlough days and/or a wage freeze for the coming year. He also promised 2,600 layoffs of state employees.

Protesting budget cuts outside the State of Illinois Building in Chicago
Protesting budget cuts outside the State of Illinois Building in Chicago (Alison McKenna | SW)

As the Illinois branch of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) reports, the fiscal year 2010 budget "also puts off repayment of over $3 billion in back due bills from 2009, which will have a great adverse impact on social services providers."

As a result, some service providers have already had their lines of credit pulled by banks worried about the state's ability to pay, so layoffs and wage reductions have already begun. Funny how when the banks are in trouble, the U.S. taxpayers' generosity gets them out of a pickle quick, but when a day care center needs to make payroll, the banks can't muster the same spirit of giving.

EVEN WITH these so-called "solutions," a $5 billion deficit remains, and another $1 billion in cuts is left to Gov. Quinn's discretion. (We're no economists, but is that the same $1 billion that he'll use to make the interest payments on the pension scheme?)

Programs funded by "grant lines" in the budget--for example, the agency working in the pediatric HIV/AIDS community that one of us works for--are still facing cuts in state funding of more than 50 percent. Though Quinn touted this budget as protecting human services by reducing the overall budget for these programs by "only" 14 percent, in reality, many programs face much more drastic reductions.

What you can do

Human service providers, child care workers, mental health professionals, disability rights activists, clients and family members are protesting the cuts. If you are interested in organizing, e-mail

For example, the Illinois State Board of Education has already cut grant programs in the Department of Education. The results:

-- Alternative education is cut by one-third;

Reading improvement and anti-truancy funding is cut in half;

The homeless children's education fund is eliminated;

Preschool will be eliminated for an estimated 30,000 children;

English as a Second Language programs are cut by 25 percent;

The Illinois' Children's Mental Health Partnership is cut by one-third.

Early childhood programs are especially hit hard--the cut of $123.3 million amounts to a third of their total operating costs. "This budget immediately erases five years of progress in early learning," said Gaylord Gieseke, interim president of Voices for Illinois Children. "It also reverses years of hard work to extend mental health supports to thousands of kids throughout our state."

Fatima Sozzer, a youth counselor at the Indo-American Center, which assists South Asian immigrants, said that she still doesn't know which of the center's programs will face cuts. The agency's youth program budget was already cut by 49 percent, and has so far had to turn away 30 children from summer camp due to lack of funds.

The picture is similar elsewhere. Workers in social service programs, drug treatment facilities, shelters for battered women and day care centers across the state have been laid off, forced to take pay cuts, furloughed and had their benefits cut and wages frozen.

Programs are cutting wherever they can, hoping to remain in operation. Yet they don't know for sure whether--or how much--their program funding will be cut by. This makes these high-pressure, low-paid jobs all the more stressful.

The programs that have been cut disproportionately impact children, women, immigrants and the poor.

TO ADD insult to injury, the budget that was passed essentially pushes back Illinois' budget woes to the next year, leaving state residents to ponder if a California-style crisis is in our near future. When the General Assembly convenes to consider additional revenues in January 2010, the state budget problems will have only grown. As NASW concludes, "Without new revenues, next year's budget will be a total train wreck."

A new budget crisis is inevitable because the money used to partially cover this year's gap is a "one time only" source of funding--the raid on state worker's pension fund. The recession further aggravates problems that have been years in the making.

Besides rampant corruption--where state contracts are awarded to the biggest donors to politicians, rather than the lowest bidder--there is also an absurdly regressive tax system in Illinois. The state's "flat" income tax structure supposedly means that all individuals and families, regardless of their income, are taxed at the same rate.

However, when the combination of sales, property and income tax rates are considered, the system proves far from flat or fair. Illinois' lowest-income working people have almost triple the tax burden as high-income earners. The very people who pay the most in taxes--the working poor--will now watch as the programs they need for their very survival are cut beyond recognition or shut down altogether.

At the beginning of the budget debate, Quinn promised to raise income taxes and close tax loopholes that the wealthy and corporations use to evade paying their share. But he soon reversed himself, opting to wield the budget axe rather than upset any of his rich donors.

This neoliberal logic--make the poor tighten their belts, and oppose any and all tax increases on the people who can actually afford them--makes zero economic sense. But it continues to be the only "logic" that politicians of either mainstream party seem to understand.

Those affected by the cuts and their allies have refused to take this attack lying down. Tens of thousands have demonstrated, picketed, sat in, called their representatives and wrote desperate pleas to newspaper editorial pages, detailing the misery they will face when the programs they depend on disappear.

Unfortunately, the inspiring new movement to stop the cuts was shortchanged in this round of the fight by a liberal leadership that also accepted "some cuts" would be necessary. This "leadership" has relied too heavily on stage-managed, top-down protests and lobbying politicians, while cutting backroom deals to spare some jobs at the expense of others.

The Service Employees International Union, a leading part of the coalition to stop the budget cuts, went so far as to have its organizers ask social service workers on one lobbying day to stand in the background, silently holding signs. They then had the social service agency managers do all the talking to the politicians and the press.

Why, one should ask, would a union for workers be helping to reinforce the hierarchy of our undemocratic workplaces inside the movement? This is particularly frustrating, because most private social service agencies are unorganized. If this is the only model of unionism they're being introduced to, they will probably stay that way.

January will be an opportunity for the Illinois legislature to pass a bill increasing revenue. We must build a movement that demands an increase in social service spending--after all, there is an increase in the need for social services during this recession.

This increase in social services should paid for by the wealthy, the corporations and the banks. For far too long, these sectors of society haven't paid their fair share, and we've suffered for it. It's time to turn the tables and make them pay up.

It's clear it will take a more militant and bottom-up movement to force the politicians to take on these powerful interests--and we need to start building that movement today.

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