The Rauner administration is systematically and heartlessly dismantling the human services infrastructure in Illinois. The damage done is not limited to our most vulnerable citizens but extends to Illinois’ workers and the state’s economy.
A recent statement from the 1500-member Illinois Parents of Adults with Developmental Disabilities (IPADD) provides the latest egregious example. A spokesperson expressed outrage and disbelief at the callousness of another of Governor Rauner’s actions. Rauner signed a proclamation designating the week of September 11-17 as “Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) Recognition Week in Illinois.” But two days later the governor vetoed a bill that would raise wages for those workers he pretends to honor.
The DSPs help people with developmental disabilities in group homes and licensed day programs. They may help with meals, medication, intimate personal care, dressing, skills training, behavioral and communication support, transportation and personal safety. While Rauner praised the “dedication and vital role” played by these workers, he vetoed the bill that would raise their hourly pay from $9.35/hour to $15/hour. The $9.35 an hour wage is below the federal poverty level for a family of four and has not been raised for eight years.
The low wage has resulted in a crisis in workforce retention. Thirty percent of DSP positions are unfilled. Even longtime DSPs are leaving. One who has to work overtime just to make ends meet, said, “We’re dedicated. We want individuals with disabilities to have stability. But working 70 hours a week means you’re stressed out and not getting much sleep. How do you take care of another person when you’re not taking care of yourself?” Skokie parent and IPADD co-moderator Ellen Bronfeld said, “We thought it fair to seek increases to $15/hour for our workforce who are employees of community not-for-profits that contract with the state. How can the governor proclaim that these jobs are vital, but say ‘we don’t have a way to pay these vital workers?’ It makes no sense.”
The evidence is not just anecdotal. According to a report funded by the Chicago Community Trust (CCT), titled “Human Services as an Economic Engine: How Human Services in Illinois Drive Jobs and Economic Benefit,” many human services workers are highly educated but work for low wages with others receiving poverty level wages.
That report focuses on economic benefits: “The total economic impact of the disposable income earned by human services workers in Illinois was $4.5 billion and these expenditures supported an additional 30,034 jobs in Illinois in 2013.” There are approximately 169,000 human services workers in Illinois.
Or there were that many workers. In January 2016 just one agency, Lutheran Family Services, had to cut 750 jobs (43% of its workforce) and over 30 programs. Of the program cuts, 90% were a direct result of the agency not being paid by the state. Services lost were to seniors, mental health counseling, homelessness prevention, and respite services for veterans.
Another CCT-funded report, “The Damage Done: How Illinois is Unravelling its Human Services,” shows the drastic decline in funding in just a year between Fiscal Year 2015 and FY 2016. Two departments, Illinois Human Services and Aging, lost payments totaling $383 million.
These programs cannot just spring back to life. Agencies have been struggling to stay afloat – with limited success – by borrowing money or going to court to force the state to pay for mandated services. Thousands of vulnerable people have lost vital services. And more than just those 750 Illinois workers have lost jobs. That’s 750-plus citizens without disposable income to spend or pay taxes on.
As a parent of a young man with autism, I am a disability advocate and believe government should work for all its citizens. I don’t use words such as “heartless” lightly, but Rauner said last fall, “We cannot be compassionate until we are competitive.” In a July interview reported on Captol Fax he boasted of “doing good things” by cutting $800 million from state spending. His examples of wasteful spending included spending for human services, job training, and police cars.
Even Crain’s Chicago Business ran a June editorial titled “Gov. Rauner, You’ve Proved Us Wrong.” It expressed what I’m sure well-meaning people had believed – a pragmatic business man would shake up state government. It granted, as I do, that much responsibility lies with Speaker Madigan for the state’s financial mess, but then put current responsibility squarely on Rauner. Crain’s said, “By nearly every measure, the state is worse off since Rauner took office. The stack of unpaid bills is ballooning, turning Illinois into a notorious deadbeat. Vital social services are being cut. … No matter how beneficial Rauner’s idea of reform might be for the state’s economy long term, what he’s doing to get there is not working.”
Disability advocates hope legislators will override the governor’s veto of the DSP wage bill. It was sponsored by Rep. Robyn Gabel who provides me with one of the many reasons I’m thankful to live in the progressive community of Evanston.
Ms. Dohogne has a son who is on the autism spectrum. Although she has been a member of the Illinois Council on Developmental Disabilities for 10 years, this essay is her own.