While the recession continues to levy a heavy toll on Illinois families, the state budget crisis is pressing policymakers to downsize long-term investments in children, concludes a new report by Voices for Illinois Children.
About a fifth of Illinois children live in poverty and that dismal tally creeps closer to a quarter (23.9 percent) in Cook County. More than 33,000 of the kids at public school desks are homeless children, this year's newly released annual report "Investing in Opportunities for Children Now" reveals.
"Children are in growing danger of hitting a terrifying rock bottom, Sid Mohn, president of the Heartland Alliance, told a gathering of more than 150 children's advocates who gathered in Chicago last week for the annual Illinois Kids Count symposium.
"Policy makers are insisting poor people lift themselves up, but removing the boot straps that allow them to do it," he said.
Child welfare professionals say state lawmakers can't afford not to invest in programs and services proven to brighten opportunities for its newest generation. Every dollar going to early childhood education can return as much as $300 in long-term benefits in health, crime prevention and economic productivity. Another data analysis, the Chicago Child Parent study, finds that early childhood programs which can boost graduation rates by 5 percent can save society $379 million. If all Illinois high school students got a diploma, that could yield a windfall of $2.8 billion to the state's accumulated wealth.
"Improvements in the lives of children are very productive investments," said keynote speaker James Heckman, a Nobel Laureate in economics and a professor at the University of Chicago.
Kids are caught in a "budget crossfire," the report finds, as state and federal lawmakers alike back peddle on hard-won progress in agendas that help children thrive. During the recession, tax credits and food assistance programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helped dull the sting of poverty for more than 150,000 Illinois children. Today, these initiatives face reinvention as block grants to the states, which is likely to dry up about 20 percent of their cash flow.
"Even as the state faces budget shortfalls, we shouldn't create deficits in children's life chances," said Kathy Ryg, president of Voices for Illinois Children.
Those life chances take the shape of early childhood education, supports for at-risk youth, mental health services and child-care assistance.
After funneling state funds to pre-K programs for a decade, budget cuts and delayed payments to service providers over the past two years dropped 11,400 kids from preschool classes. New state austerity measures for 2012 could keep another 6,700 preschoolers at home. That will just compound the catch-22 for the one in four Illinois children raised by single-moms - nearly 40 percent of whom live in poverty - who can't meet tighter income eligibility limits for the Illinois Child Care Assistance Program. The new limit, proposed for further tightening in Gov. Pat Quinn's new budget, could leave more than 9,000 children home alone, or force working moms to lose or abandon their jobs.
Big brothers and sisters are feeling the pinch, too. In 2011, high school graduation rates saw about nine of 10 white kids got a high school diploma. That number drops to 77 percent for Latinos, and 74 percent for African-Americans. High quality after-school programs are shown to shore up not only report cards, but also real-life skills grads need to land a job. State funding for Teen REACH after-school programs has been slashed by more than half since 2008 and the Governor's new budget proposes cutting it by another 20 percent.
"Investment in Teen REACH not only helps develop our state's future workforce, it saves the state money by preventing much greater costs in areas such as incarceration and substance abuse treatment," said Kristin Allen, Director of the Illinois Alliance of Boys and Girls Clubs
The bottom line can mean be a matter of life and death. State funding for school and community mental health services has shrunk by a fifth at the same time surveys show that 15 percent of Illinois high school students had seriously considered suicide, and nearly a tenth (9 percent) had actually tried to take their own lives. Congressional proposals to cap federal Medicaid funding and converting it into a block grant threaten to compromise Illinois' status as one of the lowest uninsured rates in the nation, with less than 5 percent of children lacking health insurance in 2010.
Illinois Kids Count is a project of Voices for Illinois Children and is part of a nationwide network of state-level projects supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The Illinois Kids Count report is widely regarded as the most thorough annual "state of the state" overview of children's lives in Illinois. It uses the best available data to monitor the educational, social-emotional, economic, and physical well-being of Illinois children. The entire report is available at www.voices4kids.org.
Robyn Monaghan is a mother and long-time journalist.
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