Children are caught in ‘budget crossfire’

DeWayne Bartels

A report released earlier this month states Illinois children, overall, are caught in a “budget crossfire at both the state and federal levels, while policymakers are neglecting long-term investments in children.”

That finding comes from the Illinois Kids Count 2012 report.

The recession, the report finds, has exerted a heavy toll on Illinois families.  

“In 2010, one in five Illinois children lived in poverty, and more than 33,000 homeless children were enrolled in the state’s public schools. Moreover, in a time of growing need, the state budget crisis is undermining hard-won progress in expanding opportunities for children,” the report said.  

Kathy Ryg, president, Voices for Illinois Children, added, “In this pivotal election year, we hear candidates talk about the economy and budget deficits, but who is talking about the impact on children? It’s clear that we must make the issue of public investments in children a high priority on the candidates’ agendas.  Even as the state faces budget shortfalls, we shouldn’t create deficits in children’s life-chances.”

Major findings in the report include:

• Early childhood education: Over the past decade, the state substantially increased its investments in pre-K programs to enhance school-readiness skills for young children. Between Fiscal Year 2009 and Fiscal Year 2011, however, the combination of budget cuts and delayed payments to service providers resulted in 11,400 fewer children participating in these programs.  Additional budget cuts were enacted in FY 2012, which could mean the elimination of pre-K services for another 6,700 children.

• Opportunities for at-risk youth: In 2011, high school graduation rates in Illinois were 89 percent for whites, 77 percent for Latinos, and 74 percent for African-Americans. Sustained participation in high-quality after-school programs can contribute to improved academic performance and job-readiness, as well as better social-emotional and health outcomes for youth. Yet, state funding for Teen REACH after-school programs, which offer prevention-focused services for at-risk youth, has been cut by more than half since Fiscal Year 2008.

• Mental health services: A 2009 survey indicated that 15 percent of Illinois high school students had seriously considered suicide in the previous 12 months, and 9 percent had attempted suicide one or more times. Since Fiscal Year 2009, however, state funding for school-based and community-based mental health services for children and adolescents has been cut by 20 percent.  

• Child care services: Most families in the Illinois Child Care Assistance Program are single-mother households, who have very high poverty rates — 38 percent in 2010. Last year, the income eligibility limit for the program, which enables low-income parents to maintain employment, was reduced from 200 percent to 185 percent of poverty level. This new restriction could result in the loss of services for more than 9,000 children — potentially putting their parents’ jobs in jeopardy.

• Child poverty: During the recession, the federal Earned Income Tax Credit and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program  have been very effective in the alleviation of rising child poverty. In 2010, an estimated 120,000 Illinois children were moved above poverty level by the EITC and 63,000 by SNAP. Yet, there are efforts in Congress to replace SNAP with a block grant to the states — with funding cut by almost 20 percent.

• Access to health care: Illinois has substantially expanded health insurance coverage for children through Medicaid and related programs. In 2010, less than 5 percent of children lacked health insurance coverage — one of the lowest uninsured rates in the nation. Some members of Congress have proposed capping federal Medicaid funding and converting it into a block grant, which would ultimately undermine the program’s critical role in providing comprehensive health care services for low-income children. Access to health care is a key ingredient in helping children thrive.

“We must summon the political will to ensure that children are provided with the opportunities to develop their full potential, or we risk losing an entire generation of children — and jeopardizing our future workforce,” said Ryg. “Policymakers must make hard decisions about how to allocate limited resources. We know what works, and we’re asking to safeguard the progress that’s been made. Investing in opportunities for children now can help ensure the future well-being of everyone in the state.”