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
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
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.
See more of Robyn's stories here.
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