Pain in the Budget

The feeling that rises up after only a few minutes of reviewing the proposed budget for Illinois—especially when it comes to human services—is the almost primal urge to scream.

Cuts in services to the mentally ill, the disabled, those requiring substance abuse treatment, and home care for the elderly, were no surprise. These we have come to expect; indeed, they have become an annual occurrence in an agency for which the budget has been reduced by almost 17% in the last three years.

But suddenly, embedded in all the numbers, in the Illinois Department of Human Services presentation sheet, was a shocker. Tenth on the list of 12 bullet points were the words TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) benefits will be limited to three years instead of the current five years.

Women and children in extreme poverty—on average, $432 per month for a family of three—will be cut off from cash assistance after three years rather than the current five-year limit (counted over a lifetime). About 4,000 families would be dropped from the TANF rolls, including 8,000 children.

This change does not just cut income; it reduces Illinois’ participation in a federal-state program that offers support of last resort for those at the absolute bottom in our society. With these cuts, many will have nowhere to turn other than homeless shelters. Some are probably already there.

This is not about whether poor people want to work. Individuals on TANF are required to spend 30 hours each week in activities related to work. They are on TANF, for the most part, because they cannot find it. The jobs are not available, as we know, for almost 10% of the population in Illinois. And as the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law points out, those on TANF for the most part are burdened with issues “that require time to resolve: less education, more learning disabilities, lower work experience, higher prevalence of mental health problems, an adult caring for a child or other person with health issues, a higher incidence of domestic violence.”

In a single stroke, Governor Quinn is eliminating the amount of time available to those on TANF to solve those problems by 40%. He is opening the trap door under those who already have little place to stand.

Why do we feel like screaming? This program change will save the state only $15 million. Is this the way to solve our state budget problems that total in the billions?

Sources of revenue are available that could make such cuts unnecessary. For starters, we could broaden the state sales tax, which in Illinois is one of the narrowest in the nation. The state excise tax on cigarettes in Illinois, currently 98 cents a pack, is the second lowest in the Midwest. We could close at least one or two corporate tax loopholes.

Frankly, I don’t think the list of options is all that important. Trust me, they exist. The real question is why we are allowing this proposal to stand for even a single second, indeed, why it was allowed to come forward.

In broad strokes, I can come up with only a single answer. We permit it because we do not understand the reality of those will suffer its consequences. Most of us live in a different world than those who will, and indeed already are, experiencing the pain it will cause.

There is a Christian message here, especially as we approach Holy Week. What Jesus did during his short time among us, as I believe no one else ever has, was to call us to see beyond our own lives and into the hurt and pain of others. He touched what potentially is the best in each of us.

That is why he was crucified.

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