One out of every seven people around you live in poverty. In Illinois, that’s 1.7 million people, including nearly one in five children. Policy choices made by our elected representatives matter. They especially matter to people who are struggling to maintain a decent quality of life or face structural impediments to upward mobility.
Threats to important programs and services that millions of people rely on — including healthcare, food assistance, and affordable housing — loom large at the federal level. In this challenging political environment, it may seem impossible to make progress toward justice and opportunity. But policy decisions made at the federal level play out in the states, where critical choices are made about implementation of vital national programs and services. Moreover, important policy decisions on issues like criminal justice, jobs and workplaces, domestic and community violence, and public education are driven by state and local decision-makers, often with limited or no federal input. State legislatures remain an avenue through which progress is possible.
Our advocates in Illinois had real impact this year, notwithstanding the state’s now-record budget impasse (702 days at this writing). During the Illinois Legislature’s most recent session, which ended on May 31, the Shriver Center, working as always with many allies, advocated for several bills that will advance justice and opportunity for people with low income, provided they are signed by the Governor. Although the legislature’s failure to reach a budget remains a crippling problem that threatens social services overall, these bills will help low-income individuals and families take one more step away from poverty and toward upward mobility.
Helping Young People Escape the Lifetime Burden of a Criminal Record.Tens of thousands of juveniles are arrested in Illinois each year, and a majority of those arrests are for nonviolent offenses. Although a young person’s mistakes should not brand that child for life, Illinois youth have been harmed by the erosion of confidentiality protections and the extreme difficulty and expense of erasing a juvenile record through the expungement process. HB 3817, the Youth Opportunity and Fairness Act, expands the confidentiality protections of the Illinois Juvenile Court Act to municipal ordinance violations and traffic violations, and establishes a penalty for unlawful dissemination of juvenile records. The law also expands automatic expungement of juvenile records. HB 3817 has passed both houses and awaits Governor Rauner’s signature.
Increasing Funding for Early Childhood Education. We all benefit when a child receives a strong start in life. Yet one in ten infants in Illinois lives in deep poverty, facing obstacles to healthy development from the first breath. To lay the foundation for a fair chance to reach their potential, children born into poverty must have equitable opportunities to participate in high-quality early childhood education and care from birth. The Early Childhood Block Grant program prioritizes high-need communities with programs providing high-quality early education experiences for children facing homelessness, living with income at 50% of the federal poverty level and below, with special needs, and those who have been involved in the child welfare system. HB 2426 makes clear that the block grant funding for early childhood education should supplement, not supplant, other education funding throughout the state, and it increases the amount set aside for programs from birth to age 3 from 20% to 25% of any additional funding. HB 2426 has passed both chambers and awaits signature by the Governor. Of course, it also awaits a budget that funds the block grant.
Expanding Eligibility for Child Care Assistance. Affordable child care enables families with low incomes to work or enroll in qualifying education and training programs. High-quality child care is also important to the child’s cognitive, physical, and social emotional development. HB 3213restores eligibility for child care assistance to families who need that assistance to participate in education and training activities but who are not recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits. Between 4,000 and 5,000 children are expected to become eligible for services under this bill. HB 3212 has passed both the house and the senate and awaits the governor’s signature.
Preventing Hunger Among College Students. The rising cost of higher education, scarce financial aid, and the changing face of college students has led to a growing problem: hunger on college campuses. Nearly half of college students report experiencing food insecurity, and 22% report having to miss meals. Students who attend college half-time or more are generally not eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits because they are presumed to have other sources of support. HB 3211addresses this problem by making students enrolled under certain vocationally focused programs (Perkins Pathway Career and Technical Education) eligible for SNAP benefits. As many as 40,000 community college students will benefit. If signed into law by the governor, Illinois will become the third state to extend eligibility for SNAP benefits to this group and the first to do so by statute.
Fighting Bills That Would Hurt Low-income Families.The Shriver Center successfully led opposition to a number of bills that would stigmatize public benefits recipients and reduce access to much-needed public assistance. Among other things, these bills would have required mandatory drug testing of benefit applicants and recipients; required photos on LINK cards, which are used to make food purchases; made undocumented children ineligible for Medicaid; and imposed a work requirement to qualify for Medicaid. Collectively these bills would have jeopardized the benefits of millions of Illinoisans and undermined their ability to meet basic needs.
Preventing the Expansion of Local Ordinances That Harm Tenants.“Crime free” rental housing and nuisance property ordinances, which penalize tenants and landlords for suspected criminal activity and/or calls to the police, undermine public safety by silencing crime victims and others who need to seek emergency aid or report crime. These ordinances are often enforced in ways that disproportionately harm survivors of domestic violence and people of color, and routinely run afoul of state and federal statutory and constitutional protections. SB 1666 would have permitted non-home rule units of local governments to enact crime-free property ordinances. By halting SB 1666, the Shriver Center prevented hundreds of municipalities in Illinois from enacting these harmful ordinances.
Women’s Law and Policy Project
Removing Barriers to Counseling for Illinois Youth. Many young people in Illinois confront problems in both their school and home life for which they would benefit from counseling. They may have experienced domestic or sexual violence, community violence, homelessness, may be LGBTQ, or may simply need someone to talk to in a confidential setting. Too often, these young people are not able to discuss the problems they face with their parents, or their parents are not around to grant permission for the counseling. These problems do not simply go away on their own — a path to recovery is increased access to counseling without parental consent. HB 3709 would expand access to mental health counseling for struggling youth. First, the bill increases the number and length of sessions allowed to young people before they must receive parental consent to eight sessions lasting 90 minutes. HB 3709 also provides two key exemptions to the parental consent requirement after the eighth session in cases where parents are unresponsive and/or contacting parents to receive consent would threaten a student’s well-being. The bill is on the Governor’s desk.
Strengthening the Equal Pay Act. In Illinois, for every dollar that white men earn, women earn on average only $0.79. The Equal Pay Act prohibits employers from paying wages to an employee at a lower rate than that it pays to another employee of the opposite sex for doing equal work. Unfortunately, wage discrimination based on sex continues. House Bill 2462strengthens the Equal Pay Act with amendments that prevent employers from asking job applicants about their previous salary history. Since women, on average, earn less than men, basing future wages on a worker’s previous pay only perpetuates wage inequality. A salary offer should be based on the responsibilities of the job — the skills, education and experience needed to be a successful candidate — not on the applicant’s prior wages. By eliminating the ability of employers to pay women less than men because of a woman’s prior unfairly low wages, the Equal Pay Act amendment could play a key role in the continuing fight to close the gender wage gap. The bill will be sent to the governor for action.
Raising the Minimum Wage. Raising the minimum wage is one of the best tools we have to boost incomes and grow the economy. Moreover, since low-wage workers are disproportionately women and people of color, raising the minimum wage is an important step toward narrowing the race and gender wage gaps. SB 81, which has been passed by both chambers, will raise Illinois’s current minimum wage of $8.25 an hour each year beginning on January 1, 2018, until it reaches $15 an hour by January 1, 2022. If enacted into law, all low-wage workers — more than 40% of Illinois workers across industries, across all age ranges, and across all points of Illinois — will benefit from a wage increase. SB 81 awaits the governor’s signature.
The Budget Crisis Continues
Despite these many important wins for Illinoisans living in poverty, the regular session ended without the adoption of a fully-funded, year long budget for the third straight year.
The crisis continues to wear on the entire state, but falls hardest on people in poverty. Illinois’s social service infrastructure is eroding. The state’s most at-risk — from survivors of domestic violence to homebound seniors — continue to lose services. The higher education system remains in tatters. The climate for doing business worsens by the day. Backlogged bills continue to pile up. Put short: the livelihood of the entire state is hanging in the balance. And, with federal lawmakers threatening to make cuts that will impose major cost shifts to state governments, it is particularly important that Illinois get its fiscal house in order.
Lead by the Shriver Center, the Responsible Budget Coalition will not rest until Illinois gets a budget with the revenue necessary to undo this damage, fund vital services, and make smart investments for the future.
And at all levels of governance, the Shriver Center will continue to provide leadership to advance laws and policies that improve the quality of life and opportunities for people living in poverty. But this work always demands more allies and friends. Join us.