Budget Empathy

It is hard to believe how mindless, even cruel, we can be when it comes to budget cuts in tough times in Illinois.

Now being considered: a reduction of nearly $45 million in TANF, the program that provides temporary cash assistance to needy children and their families. Grants are only 25% of the federal poverty level, $474 for a family of four. The number of children served would be reduced by one-third.

Gov. Quinn is also proposing to eliminate the Transitional Assistance Program, which provides a monthly grant of $100 to adults with no income or assets and deemed ‘unemployable’ by the Department of Human Services. Most of these people are homeless.

There is more: mental health community services could be cut by $33 million, or one-quarter of their total budget; and employment and training programs by over 50%.

Two other proposed reductions are especially hard to understand: 36% in centers for independent living, and over 50%, a total of over $50 million, in drug addiction treatment. Both of these cuts will cost rather than save state money. Home services are far less expensive than institutional placement. Spending about $5,000 in drug treatment often helps avoid incarceration costs of over $20,000 per year.

How is it that the citizens of Illinois can let these cuts be considered, let alone move forward? Maybe these budget travesties are simply not real to so many of us. We have no experience of what the decisions are really about. We know they will not affect us, or those close to us. Perhaps we don’t even know they are happening.

Dorothy Dix, who fought to provide humane treatment for the mentally ill in the 19th century, wrote, “It is only those women whose eyes have been washed clear with tears who get the broad vision that makes them little sisters to all the world.” It would seem that those who have experienced pain are most likely to show mercy.

Often it is first-hand knowledge that opens our eyes and creates this broader vision. In the 1990s, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless lobbied year after year for an appropriation to support the first homeless youth shelter in Illinois. Finally someone had the good idea of inviting the Chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to visit with a group of homeless youth. Funding was approved within days.

Last week, after conversations with individuals, including a disabled veteran, who suffer from intractable pain, Republican Minority Leader Tom Cross publicly endorsed the bill to legalize medical marijuana in Illinois. He attributed his “conversion” to getting to know these patients.

Theologian and ethicist John Bennett once offered a single sentence that explains more about our potential for hardheartedness than any other I have read: “Anything,” he wrote, “is permitted at a distance.” Isn’t our faith all about closing that distance? In the midst of this budget season, I find it hard to think of a better practical definition of Christian love.

If we will, we can do something about the cuts being proposed for TANF, Transitional Assistance, and other programs serving people in dire need. The question is whether we have the imagination, indeed, the fundamental empathy, that will prompt us to do so.

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