Ryan's "Path to Prosperity" Means More Poverty and Less Opportunity--Unless You're Wealthy

It took only five hearings on the “Progress of the War on Poverty,” as well as multiple requests by the anti-poverty group Witnesses to Hunger, but House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan has finally invited a person with direct experience to testify. Tianna Gaines-Turner, a mother of three who makes $10.20 an hour, knows what it is to experience poverty. At the hearing on July 9, Gaines-Turner explained to Chairman Ryan that between her low wages and those of her husband, who makes $8.50 an hour, as well as the cost of caring for her children’s health problems (two suffer from epilepsy and all three suffer from asthma), her family struggles to make ends meet. As a result, Gaines-Turner and her family have been homeless in the past and have had to make tough decisions like choosing to skip meals for themselves to provide food for their children. Gaines-Turner’s story, however, is unlikely to affect Ryan’s understanding of poverty. Despite recent efforts to position himself as the right’s anti-poverty crusader, including embarking on a “listening tour,” Ryan repeatedly has demonstrated, in the form of budget documents, hearings, reports, and speeches, that his real priority is to further advantage the already-rich. The most recent and revealing example of this distorted agenda is Ryan’s budget resolution for FY 2015.

Ryan’s budget plan is called the “Path to Prosperity,” but don’t be fooled—it reads more like a “path to adversity.” Behind the rhetoric is more of the same—an austere plan that heavily favors the already-rich.  A majority (69%) of Ryan’s proposed budget cuts are in programs for low-income people. And yet Ryan still finds room in the budget to carve out major tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% and major corporations. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ President Robert Greenstein has said, the budget is “an exercise in hypocrisy—claiming to boost opportunity and reduce poverty while flagrantly doing the reverse.”

Ryan says he is all about creating opportunity. And yet, he proposes gutting the very programs that create opportunities for people to escape poverty, including Pell Grants and job training. The irony isn’t lost on us—nor is the disproportionate impact this budget will have on low- and middle-income Americans. Here are some of the reasons we shouldn’t take Ryan’s words at face value and instead let the numbers speak for themselves:

1. The Ryan budget plan shreds the safety net. Some of the most important and effective safety net programs, including SNAP (food stamps) and Medicaid, are on the chopping block in the Ryan plan. For example, Ryan proposes resurrecting draconian cuts to the SNAP program that the House passed in September and combining them with further steep cuts that would cut $137 billion, or 18% of the program, in total, over the next decade. The plan also block-grants the program starting in 2019, meaning states would receive a fixed sum each year. This is troubling for two reasons. First, SNAP works so well because of the cyclical nature of its spending, which increases to meet demand during times of recession and widespread economic hardship, and falls to pre-recession levels once economic conditions improve. The recovery from the last economic downturn is a testament to this; already, SNAP spending as a share of the economy has begun declining. By capping the program at a fixed amount that would be unable to rise to the level of increased need in a recession, the Ryan plan would undermine what makes the program so effective: its responsiveness to economic conditions. Second, the dramatic cuts in the Ryan plan would force states to choose whose benefits to cut even further—will it be working parents, poor children, senior citizens, people with disabilities, veterans, or other people struggling to make ends meet? SNAP benefits provide just $1.40 per meal—how much more does Chairman Ryan think he can cut?

Going hungry isn’t the only thing struggling families would have to worry about under the Ryan plan—another basic need, health care, would also be jeopardized. The Ryan budget saves nearly $2.7 trillion by slashing access to health care for low- and moderate-income people. It achieves these savings by repealing the parts of the Affordable Care Act that provide coverage for low- and moderate-income people and by converting Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program into block grants with significantly reduced funding. Under this plan, over 40 million low- and middle-income Americans, or 1 in 8 Americans, would become uninsured by 2024. Ryan’s plan fails to include any meaningful health insurance alternatives for the millions that will be left uninsured.

2. The Ryan budget plan cuts programs that create opportunities to escape poverty. For all Chairman Ryan talks about the importance of creating opportunity, his decision to cut Pell Grants by more than $125 billion over the next decade proves otherwise. Historically, Pell Grants, which enable low- and moderate-income students to afford college, have been instrumental in fostering opportunities to escape poverty through higher education. At a time when college tuition is skyrocketing to unprecedented levels, Ryan’s budget would freeze the maximum grant for 10 years, and would eliminate Pell Grants entirely for moderate-income students (who can currently receive modest assistance). As is, the maximum Pell Grant covers less than one-third of college expenses; at one time, it covered more than half of all college costs. Ryan’s budget thus makes it harder for low- and moderate-income students to attend college and break the cycle of poverty.

The plan also cuts funding for education and job training far below current levels.

3. The Ryan budget plan makes indiscriminate cuts to domestic programs. Ryan’s budget calls for at least $500 billion in cuts to mandatory programs other than Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, SNAP, Pell Grants, farm programs, civil service programs, and veterans’ benefits. A substantial share of spending in this category is for low-income programs, including the Earned Income Tax Credit, the low-income component of the Child Tax Credit, school lunch and other child nutrition programs, and Supplemental Security Income, which helps extremely poor people who are elderly or have serious disabilities.

4.  It’s a “balanced” budget that only helps the rich. Ryan calls his budget a pathway to prosperity. What’s hiding behind the misleading rhetoric, however, is more of the same: top-down policies that fail our economy and disproportionately burden our nation’s low- and middle-income working families. In particular, Ryan wants to cut the top individual tax rate and the top corporate income tax rate to 25% and eliminate the Alternative Minimum Tax, on top of repealing the Affordable Care Act’s revenue-raising provisions. Together, these tax cuts for the wealthy would cost about $5.7 trillion over 10 years, while cuts to crucial programs for low- and moderate-income people would total $5.2 trillion. And yet, the budget assumes a revenue-neutral outcome—even though the plan fails to specify a single tax loophole to narrow or close in order to make up the difference in revenue losses.

The greatest problem with the Ryan budget is that it sprints to get the budget balanced in an extremely short amount of time (just 10 years), and does it by making massive cuts that disproportionately affect low-income people. Rather than looking for new ways to raise revenues, Ryan has chosen the easy way out. This strategy largely ignores any short- and long-term economic consequences. Moreover, it ignores the fact that the proposed cuts will result in large increases in poverty and in the number of people that are uninsured. As a result, Ryan’s plan provides prosperity only for the wealthy.

Chairman Ryan can talk a good game about poverty and the lack of upward mobility. In fact, Ryan is scheduled to speak about poverty (and likely elaborate on his proposed policy reforms) this Thursday, July 24, at the American Enterprise Institute. But we do not take him seriously because of what he is actually proposing to do. Numbers, such as those in his recently-passed budget resolution for FY 2015, make it harder to obscure the truth: that poverty and those suffering from it are not Ryan’s real priority.                                

The author thanks Kali Grant, Economic Justice and Opportunity VISTA, for her extensive work on this blog.


Bruce Rauner's Tax Plan

Bruce Rauner, the Republican candidate for Governor of Illinois, recently released his Jobs and Growth blueprint, which includes his tax plan. Here is a look at his major tax proposals and current stance on the minimum wage.

Income Tax. Rauner would reduce Illinois's current 5% income tax rate to its previous level of 3% over four years. This would cost the state $8 billion in annual revenue. Were Rauner to follow through on this pledge, he would have to find a corresponding amount in spending savings. Rauner provides no information about what programs he would cut or by how much.

Eight billion dollars is a lot of money. It’s more than the state’s general funds spending on health care ($7 billion), K-12 education ($6.7 billion), human services ($3.2 billion), higher education ($2.5 billion), public safety including prisons ($1.6 billion), or seniors ($1 billion). But Rauner does not say anything either about specific cuts or about priorities for cuts that would be needed to achieve this magnitude of savings.

Sales Tax. Rauner proposes to raise $600 million by increasing the number of services that would be subject to the sales tax. This $600 million would make up less than 10% of the $8 billion revenue loss from his income tax proposal. Thus Rauner’s overall plan is a massive cut to revenue that will trigger unspecified massive spending cuts.

As to the merits of Rauner’s proposal, we agree that Illinois should tax more services, and we support this part of his plan. Rauner would exempt “day-to-day” services such as day care centers, laundromats, barber shops, and animal care. Services he would tax include attorneys, printing, and travel agents. We may have some differences with Rauner as to which categories of services should be taxed or exempted, but we do strongly agree in principle with him that consumer services generally should be subject to the sales tax. We also credit Rauner for the specificity of this part of his plan, which details which services would be taxed and which would be exempt.

Property Tax Freeze. We agree with Rauner that Illinois has become far too dependent on local property taxes. Our biggest concern is the inequity in school funding that has resulted. However, we oppose a complete freeze on property taxes as Rauner has proposed because it generally hinders localities’ abilities to raise needed funds and forces localities to turn to regressive sources of income like sales taxes and fees. Freezing property taxes also can create severe distortions in housing markets. 

Minimum Wage. Rauner got himself into trouble during the primary campaign when, while playing to conservative audiences, he announced his support for reducing Illinois’s minimum wage from $8.25 to the federal minimum wage of $7.25. This proved to be a highly unpopular position, especially coming from a billionaire.

In his new plan, Rauner says he supports raising the minimum wage “gradually.” He does not say how much he would he raise it, or how gradually.

Rauner also makes his support for an increase in the minimum wage contingent on the adoption of business-friendly reforms of workers compensation and tort claims. This conditional support for raising the minimum wage increases the difficulty of passing it.  There are difficult political problems with each of the reforms he champions that, in addition to the political issues around the minimum wage, multiply the obstacles to any of it actually happening.

The bottom line, then, is that the Rauner tax plan would produce welcome changes to the sales tax, but as a whole would result in a massive cut in state revenue that would require an equally massive cut in spending on education, health care, human services, and public safety. Rauner offers no specifics on what programs he would cut.  And he offers support for an unspecified increase in the minimum wage contingent on controversial business reforms.   

The "Tennessee Promise": Real Reform or Empty Diversion?

As graduation season comes to an end, our thoughts return back to Republican Governor Haslam’s 2014 State of the State Address announcing a plan to provide two years of free community college and vocational school to all Tennesseans:  

This isn’t just about higher education — it’s about better jobs for more Tennesseans. It’s about building a stronger economy. . . . As we urge more Tennesseans to continue their education, we know we have to remove as many barriers as possible. For many Tennessee families, cost is the biggest hurdle to further education. That’s why tonight I am really excited to announce the “Tennessee Promise.” 

In order to participate in the Tennessee Promise, students would first have to apply for federal student aid, need-based, or merit scholarships. Tennessee would then pay the cost of tuition and fees not covered by other student aid. Similar to tnAchieves, the Tennessee Promise would place requirements on students, such as full-time college enrollment, maintenance of a 2.0 grade-point average, and completion of eight hours of community service per semester.

According to its architects, Tennessee Promise would be the only program of its kind and a revolutionary way of thinking about student loans and the societal promise that an educated and employed citizen is a responsibility of the state. The program beckons back to pre-millennium years when California and New York provided tuition-free community or city colleges to in-state students. However, after integration in New York spiked student enrollment, and funding cuts in California following property tax reductions, both states ceased to offer these programs. 

Tennessee plans to avoid these budgetary pitfalls by depending not on property taxes but instead on lottery revenues for funding. Several states, including Arkansas, Georgia, and South Carolina, use lottery money to provide college scholarships based on academic merit. Tennessee already offers merit-based scholarships, called Hope Scholarships, but the Tennessee Promise is for all students regardless of academic standing to attend community and technical colleges free of charge.

The announcement of the Tennessee Promise reflects the heightened interest of state leaders around the country in keeping college affordable and boosting the number of college graduates. Republican governors in Florida and Texas have attempted to reduce the cost of 4-year state schools to $10,000, by employing advances in technology such as online learning. However, the projects have not drastically changed degree programs and most students in both states already end up paying less than $10,000 for such degrees with careful planning in high school and federal or state aid already in existence.

Another pilot program passed in Oregon, called Pay It Forward, Pay it Back, also avoids the use of property tax for funding. Unlike in Tennessee, tuition would ultimately not be free for students. Instead students would pay no tuition upfront, but pay a small percentage of their income for the next 20 years to "pay forward" the cost of instruction for the next generation of students.

Some argue the Tennessee Promise is far from perfect. The plan calls for reducing Hope Scholarships for freshmen and sophomores at Tennessee's four-year universities from $4,000 to $3,000. Tennessee democrat Rep. Steve Cohen, who was instrumental in developing the state's Hope Scholarship program, argued the governor's plan could discourage enrollment from the state's top universities. "Over the last 10 years, the Hope Scholarship program that I worked for 20 years as a state senator to create has been an unparalleled success," Cohen said. "But the governor's 'promise' actually cuts funding from high-achieving students beginning four-year degree programs."

Others raise concerns about the longevity of the “Tennessee Promise” given that Governor Haslam is up for reelection this year and arguing that the program’s dependence on lottery funds is unsustainable. The program also would not apply to working adults.

“Tennessee Promise” is worth watching, but we also must not take our eyes off increasing graduation rates from four-year institutions and perhaps, most important, increasing high school graduation rates, and decreasing higher education costs across the board.

The author thanks Catharine Debelle, Training Programs VISTA, for her extensive work on this blog.



Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Fifty years ago yesterday President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964  into law, outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in voter registration, in employment, in schools, and by facilities that serve the public.   We should be dancing in the streets.

Instead of rejoicing, we are worried. We think all Americans should be worried. Why? Because just days before, on June 30, the United States Supreme Court’s majority decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Store, Inc, potentially drove a truck through the protections of the 1964 law as well as any number of other federal laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, and the Age Discrimination Act.

Right now, the Hobby Lobby decision does substantial damage to the health of women and girls who are employees, spouses, or dependent daughters of the over 14,000 employees of the three plaintiff businesses.  The Court held that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993 protects the free exercise of religion rights of the three for-profit, closely controlled corporations that brought the lawsuits and that the businesses do not have to comply with the federal law and regulations requiring employer group health plans to cover the 20 contraceptive methods approved by the Food and Drug Administration as preventive services without cost to the patient.  The companies objected to covering four of those 20 methods in their health plans, claiming those four may interfere with a fertilized egg’s attaching to the uterus and the corporations’ owners have sincerely held religious beliefs that life begins at conception.    With the Court’s decision, thousands of women who work at these companies or who are the company-insured wives or daughters of company employees will have to pay 100% of the cost if they need one of the four excluded contraceptives.   Many will not have the funds to pay these costs and will go without or use second or third choice contraceptive methods which may not be the optimal medical choice. (NOTE: Extending RFRA’s protections to for-profit corporations was a huge leap that the majority of the Court was willing to take; This “startling breadth” is discussed by Justice Ginsberg in her dissent.)

In the future, closely held for-profit corporations and perhaps all for-profit corporations that can claim they have sincerely held religious beliefs can demand to opt out of federal laws they judge incompatible with their beliefs. Hence our worry. The majority decision tries to tell us this is not a big deal, that the decision is only about contraceptive health care coverage. We can only say “Really?” Since when do American courts make decisions whose holdings are not used by other litigants to support their positions in future, not identical cases?   

It does not take much imagination to come up with claims companies might make in the name of their sincerely held religious beliefs that would strip employees and customers of rights protected by the laws of the United States. Without pointing fingers at specific religions, we’ll just say that in the past, and sometimes into the present, main line religions have claimed that slavery was okay;  that interracial marriage was sinful; that a woman’s place was in the home not in the workplace; that unmarried women should not be sexually active and should be punished if they are; that gays and lesbians are sinners; and that a long list of well-established medical procedures (vaccinations, anesthesia, for example) are against their religious tenets.    In the present day there are serious disagreements among established religions over many issues and even more disagreements among smaller groups and individuals—but all have the “sincerely held religious beliefs” that the Hobby Lobby majority opinion potentially allows to trump third parties federally protected established rights. The result could be that for-profit corporations claiming these beliefs could refuse to employ people, fire people, turn away customers, and otherwise not follow generally applicable federal laws because following them would violate their beliefs. 

The Hobby Lobby decision is slightly over 72 hours old. Already, there is much commentary and speculation about it. We suggest you look at the Center for American Progress’ thoughtful historical and legal analysis, A Blueprint for Reclaiming Religious Liberty Post-Hobby Lobbyfor a better understanding of how we got to this point and how we can move forward, undo Hobby Lobby’s damage, and continue to foster the free exercise of religion.



The New Jim Crow: Honoring the Civil Rights of Those Who Have Paid Their Debt to Society

Thanks to the blood, sweat and tears of our ancestors, the immoral institution of slavery ended over 150 years ago. But the vestiges of slavery—prejudice and discrimination against people of color—remain woven into the fabric of American society.

Race discrimination continued under Jim and Jane Crow laws and the “separate but equal” legal doctrine. Thankfully, heroes of all ages and backgrounds risked everything to eradicate those immoral laws and practices so that liberty and justice could truly be available to all. As a result of their sacrifices, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed and enacted, 50 years ago today on July 2, 1964, and Jim and Jane Crow laws and practices began to fade into the recesses of American history just as slavery did over a hundred years prior.

As these laws were repealed and overturned, new ways to systemically oppress people of color emerged–“new Jim Crow.” The ‘new Jim Crow’ refers to the disproportionate, mass incarceration of minorities, and the subsequent legal discrimination these men and women endure because of the resulting criminal record.

Depriving individuals of their freedom is a significant component of the criminal justice system. Depriving those same individuals of freedom after they complete their sentences should not be. Unfortunately, more than 65 million men and women throughout the nation with criminal records, a disproportionate number of whom are people of color, are facing just that.

The vast majority of employers will not hire men and women with a conviction of any kind. Moreover, people with convictions face significant challenges accessing affordable housing, and a significant number of landlords are not likely to rent to someone with a criminal record. With no meaningful access to jobs or housing, how can these people, who have paid their debts to society, be truly free?

These deprivations certainly have devastating effects on the individuals affected, but they also have a deleterious effect on these individuals’ elderly parents, children, and loved ones—for life. That is immoral.

Thankfully, members of the Illinois General Assembly (on both sides of the aisle) recongnize that. Recently, the General Assembly voted to pass two bills, HB 2378 and HB 5701 (or the Job Opportunities for Qualified Applicants Act), both introduced by Representative Rita Mayfield, that will make it easier for millions of Illinois men and women with criminal records to truly have their freedom restored. Now, it is our hope that Illinois Governor, Patrick Quinn, uses his power to sign these bills into law so that this most recent incarnation of these immoral laws and practices can be addressed. This represents an opportunity for the men and women who have turned their lives around to take care of themselves and their families. The signing of these bills would also make Illinois a leader as it relates to respecting the rights of all individuals and set a standard that we can all hope other states will emulate.

Specifically, HB 5701, or the Job Opportunities for Qualified Applicants Act (JOQAA),will improve the hiring process for over 300,000 employers and open doors for more than a million qualified people with criminal records in Illinois. Under the JOQAA, employers will be tasked with first determining whether applicants are qualified for a job and offering them an interview or the job before inquiring into the applicant’s criminal history in any form. This will allow men and women who have worked hard to become qualified for positions an opportunity to access the job opportunities they’ve earned.

The other bill, HB 2378, will give more than a quarter million men and women in Illinois who have minor, older, low-level offenses (misdemeanors) an opportunity to petition the court to limit who can look at those old convictions (a process called sealing). This legislation will help ensure that hard-working individuals with old, minor convictions are not unjustly denied jobs, housing, or other opportunities.

These bills are significant on their own. But they are even more significant today as we reflect on the lives lost in the fight for freedom throughout our history and the gains they’ve won as a result of their tireless, selfless fight for what’s right.


Illinois Legislative Session Ends with Some Significant Gains for People Living in Poverty

Shriver Center advocates worked zealously this legislative session to achieve some tremendous reforms that will improve the lives of countless low- and moderate-income Illinoisans, as well as expand justice and opportunity for all of us. Some important pieces of legislation did not pass this session, so we will continue to fight through veto session this fall and into next year’s session. Thank you for your continued support and for contacting your legislators when action alerts arrived in your inboxes. Every voice helps!

If you have not done so already, please sign up for any or all of our action alerts so you can continue to support our advocacy efforts! 

Asset Opportunity Legislation

Let’s Provide a Retirement Savings Plan for Illinois Workers—SB 2758/HB 4595. Our coalition worked tirelessly during the legislative session to advance the Secure Choice Savings Program (formerly auto-IRA), and we moved the legislation farther than ever before. The Secure Choice Savings Program will help give millions of Illinois workers access to portable, employment-based Individual Retirement Accounts and the opportunity to build a financially secure future. Secure Choice has been endorsed by the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the State Journal-Register. The bill passed out of the Illinois Senate in April and the House Committee on Personnel and Pensions in late May. We will continue our work over the summer and hope to have the bill called for a vote in the House during the fall veto session in late November or early December. Please contact your state representative and tell him or her to support this commonsense approach to ensuring all Illinoisans have the opportunity to retire in dignity. Learn more

Budget and Tax Legislation

We Need to Maintain Stable Revenue to Protect the State’s Priorities. The Shriver Center has been a leader of the campaign for A Better Illinois, which sought to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to permit a Fair Tax. Illinois’s Constitution currently mandates that the state income tax be set at an unfair, regressive flat rate; a Fair Tax would allow people with lower incomes to pay a lower rate while individuals with higher incomes would pay a higher rate. To get on the ballot, a constitutional amendment must obtain a 3/5 super-majority of both the Senate and House at least six months before the election. The campaign came close but was unable to secure the votes needed. Efforts to put this constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2016 are ongoing.

The Shriver Center, in its role as convener of the Responsible Budget Coalition, is also leading the effort to maintain the current 5% income tax rate, which is scheduled to revert to 3.75% on January 1, 2015. If this happens, the state would lose $2 billion in revenue in FY 2015 and a staggering $5 billion in FY 2016. The General Assembly adjourned without taking action on extending the current income tax rate; instead, they balanced the budget with fiscal gimmicks that will postpone program cuts until after the November election. The Shriver Center is working for a post-election restoration of the current 5% tax rate, without which devastating cuts will be made to programs that serve low-income people and other vulnerable populations.

The Shriver Center is also a lead on legislation that would double the state earned income tax credit from 10% of the federal credit to 20% over five years. The earned income tax credit, a refundable tax credit available to low-income workers, encourages work and reduces poverty among nearly a million Illinois taxpayers every year. In a show of strong bipartisan support for increasing the earned income tax credit, 47 House members have signed on as co-sponsors of this legislation.

Contact your representatives and ask them to maintain the 5% tax rate and increase the earned income tax credit. This legislation secured widespread support but was another casualty of the General Assembly’s failure to take action on revenue.

Community Justice Legislation

Qualified Job Applicants Have a Better Chance to Support Themselves and Their Families—HB 5701.  The Shriver Center, supported by a coalition of advocates, successfully led the effort to pass the Job Opportunities for Qualified Applicants Act (JOQAA), which will fundamentally change the hiring process for over 300,000 employers and open doors for more than a million qualified people with criminal records. Currently, 92% of employers conduct criminal background checks on applicants, and 65% of them reject applicants with even one conviction of any kind. Under the JOQAA, temporary employment agencies and employers with 15 or more employees, who are not required by law to reject applicants with records, will be prohibited from inquiring into an applicant’s criminal history in any form until after the applicant receives written notification of the employer’s intent to interview or a conditional offer of employment. We are hopeful Governor Quinn will sign the bill in the coming weeks. Learn more.

Older Low-Level Offenses Are Now Eligible for Sealing—HB 2378. The Shriver Center also successfully passed HB 2378, which will give more than a quarter million men and women with minor, older, low-level offenses (misdemeanors) in Illinois an opportunity to petition the court to limit who can look at those old convictions (a process called sealing). This legislation will help ensure that hard-working individuals with old, minor convictions are not unjustly denied jobs, housing, or other opportunities. We are hoping that the Governor will sign this bill in the coming weeks, as well. Learn more.

Economic Justice Legislation

Elderly and Disabled Refugees and Asylees Now Have a More Adequate Safety Net—SB 2735/HB 4369. The Shriver Center successfully advocated for an increase in the monthly grant paid to certain elderly and disabled refugees and asylees. This AABD Grant program provides income support to elderly and disabled refugees and asylees suspended from the federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program because they were not able to become U.S. citizens within seven years. These individuals’ monthly assistance will increase from $500 to $649 and will automatically increase annually so as to remain at 90% of the maximum SSI payment amount. Funding for this increase and the required statutory change were included in the fiscal year 2015 budget adopted by the General Assembly and the accompanying legislation implementing the budget. Learn more.

The Shriver Center also led the successful effort to defeat several proposals that sought to stigmatize and dehumanize recipients of public benefits, including bills that would have mandated drug testing of public benefits recipients, required photo identification on the electronic benefits cards recipients use, and limited SNAP recipients’ food choices.

We Need to Increase the Child Support Pass-through for TANF FamiliesSB 3216. This bill would increase the amount of the child support collected on behalf of families receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) that is turned over to the family without reducing the family’s TANF benefits. Currently Illinois "passes through" a maximum of $50 per month of child support although the federal maximum is $200. Increasing the pass-through to the federal maximum would not only increase the income of some of Illinois’s poorest families but it would also let noncustodial parents see that their child support payments actually help their kids, and thereby encourage noncustodial parents to pay regularly and on time and be more involved in their children's lives. The bill passed the Senate and the House Human Services Committee, but concerns about its cost kept it from going to a vote in the House.  We are hopeful that it will pass in the fall veto session or next year since it has wide support among General Assembly members.  

Health Care Justice Legislation

Critical Benefits in the Medicaid Program Are Restored—SB 741. The General Assembly wisely restored some health care benefits that it had eliminated or overly restricted in the 2011 Medicaid budget reduction law known as the SMART Act.  Starting July 1, 2014, all adults on Medicaid will have access to dental services (exams, crowns, fillings, extractions, and dentures). Medicaid adult dental services still are not comprehensive; they do not cover preventive services such as cleanings or periodontal services, except for pregnant women. 

The General Assembly also restored general coverage for services from podiatrists, starting October 1; these services had been restricted in 2011 to Medicaid patients with diabetes. 

The General Assembly also lifted the 20-visit maximum for speech, hearing, language, occupational, and therapy that it had imposed in 2011. Starting October 1, Medicaid patients will be able to access as many therapist visits as are medically necessary, with prior approval from the Medicaid agency. 

Finally the General Assembly exempted anti-psychotic medication prescriptions and medicines for a group of children with complex medical needs from certain prior authorization requirements imposed in 2011. These requirements had prevented recipients from obtaining more than four prescriptions per month. 

The Shriver Center, working in coalition with other health advocates and Medicaid recipients, had been pressing for these benefit changes since passage of the SMART Act in 2011. Advocates argued that the 2011 restrictions were hurting patients and not saving money for the state because patients ended up sicker and sought much more expensive care in emergency rooms and hospitals when they could not get the medications, services, and therapies they needed

Housing Justice Legislation

Execution of Evictions by Any Peace Officer Is PreventedHB 5395Along with a coalition of advocates and the Cook County Sheriff’s office, the Shriver Center vigorously opposed HB 5395, which would allow any peace officer, including off-duty police officers, to execute an eviction in Cook County. The bill would have also limited the number of post-judgment requests to stop an eviction that a tenant could present in court. By allowing any peace officer, on or off duty, to execute evictions, the bill could expose renters to evictions at the hands of individuals who have no supervision or training in executing court orders and who lack the necessary information to understand if the eviction order is proper. The bill received a substantial amount of negative press and was ultimately not called for a vote.

Tenants Are Protected from Eviction for Minor Noise Complaints—HB 1532. The Shriver Center opposed HB 1532, which would have exposed renters to emergency eviction proceedings for minor municipal ordinance violations such as noise complaints and could have resulted in the eviction of victims of violence who called the police for help. Along with the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the Shriver Center negotiated an amendment to the bill to protect people who call the police from being evicted. Ultimately, the bill did not move forward due to opposition from other organizations, local governments, and the state attorneys association. 

Women’s Law and Policy Project Legislation

Pregnant Workers Have a Right to Reasonable Accommodations—HB 8. The final version of HB 8 passed both chambers of the General Assembly unanimously. Sponsored by Rep. Mary Flowers in the House and Sen. Toi Hutchinson in the Senate, this legislation will ensure workplace fairness by requiring employers to make reasonable accommodations for conditions related to pregnancy and childbirth. Three-quarters of women now entering the workforce will become pregnant. Most pregnant women need to keep working for as long as possible during their pregnancies to support their growing families. HB 8 will ensure that no woman will have to choose between a healthy pregnancy and her job. Governor Quinn supports the legislation and will sign the bill soon. The law will be effective as of January 1, 2015. Learn more.

Domestic and Sexual Violence Survivors Have More Workplace Protections—SB 3038 (formerly SB 2003 and HA 1). The Shriver Center also led the successful effort to amend the Workplace Violence Prevention Act, a law that became effective January 1, 2014. The law, pre-amendments, allows employers to obtain orders of protection on behalf of its employees who are the target of any unlawful violence, including employees who are domestic or sexual violence survivors, without notice or consultation. By allowing an employer to pursue an order of protection on behalf of an employee without notice or consultation, employers may put domestic and sexual violence survivors at greater risk of harm not only on the job, but more likely, while not at work. SB 3038 amends the law to remove any legal proceedings pursued under the Workplace Violence Prevention Act from the IDVA process. SB 3038 also provides some protections for survivors, including requiring employers to notify and consult with survivors before petitioning the court for a protective order, and provides remedies for employers’ violations of the Act. The amended bill was passed unanimously by both the Senate and the House, and we hope that Governor Quinn will sign the bill as soon as possible.

Raise the Minimum Wage—SB 68 SA4/HB 3718. Instead of passing SB 68 SA4 or HB 3718, which would have raised the state minimum wage over three years from its current $8.25/hour to $10.65/hour in 2016, the General Assembly passed HB 3814. HB 3814 puts an advisory question on the ballot in the November 4, 2014, election that will ask, “Shall the minimum wage in Illinois for adults over 18 be raised to $10 per hour by January 1, 2015?” We encourage voters to support the referendum by voting yes on November 4, so that the Shriver Center and its coalition partners can win an increase for workers when the General Assembly reconvenes after the election. Learn more.

Domestic Workers Need Employment Protections—SB 1708/HB 4174. The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights would protect domestic workers from exploitation and unfair treatment by ensuring basic workplace protections affecting workers’ wages, work environment, and employer obligations. The bill did not pass this session, however the Shriver Center and its coalition partners continued to make progress on the language of the bill in both the House and Senate, and we will continue our efforts to pass this important legislation. Learn more.

Ensure Success in School for Pregnant and Parenting Teens and Survivors of Domestic or Sexual ViolenceHB 2213. The Ensuring Success in School legislation focuses on elementary and secondary students who are parents, expectant parents, or survivors of domestic or sexual violence. The goal of the legislation is to ensure these students stay in school, stay safe, succeed academically and complete their education. The bill passed the House, but did not pass the Senate. The Shriver Center will continue its advocacy efforts on behalf of these students.


2013 Poverty Scorecard Confirms Congress's Lack of Attention to the Poor

Poverty ScorecardFifty years ago, in his first major speech as president, and only six weeks after President Kennedy had been assassinated, President Lyndon Johnson announced a War on Poverty. Congress then enacted a series of far-reaching programs that changed the American landscape forever. In the decade following President Johnson’s announcement, poverty in America was cut by one third.  
Back then, our political system functioned differently than it does today. Although the political parties staked out different positions on key issues, and the party out of power formed a loyal opposition to the majority party, in the end deals were made through compromise, and Congress addressed the problems of the day.
Today we have a deep and seemingly irreconcilable partisan divide in Congress. On issue after issue, the parties have staked out polarized positions and brook no compromise. This partisan gridlock results in little or nothing ever being done to address our nation’s major problems.
All Americans are victims of Congress’s inaction. But the burden arguably falls heaviest on low-income people, who have the most to lose under the status quo.
For the past six years, the Shriver Center has documented and ranked the performance of every member of Congress in fighting poverty. A surprising number of the floor votes taken by Congress each year, on bills that cover a wide range of subjects, affect the vital interests of low-income people. This year we selected 18 votes in the Senate and another 18 votes in the House that we determined, with the help of our panel of subject matter experts, to be of the greatest significance to people living in poverty. In 2013, about half of these votes had to do with the funding of government programs important to people in poverty. Many of the other votes related to the rights of low-income people, including the rights to vote, to receive needed public benefits, to fair treatment in the workplace, to access free legal services, and to be free of hunger.  
The Poverty Scorecard grades each member based on his or her score on these votes. Our primary finding – that 97% of the members of the United States Senate and 95% of the members of the U.S. House of Representatives score at one extreme or the other -- confirms the extreme nature of the partisan divide. Moderates are supported by only a handful of legislative districts and states. As long as legislative districts lean heavily toward one party or the other, the only threat to a member’s reelection is a primary challenge from someone in the member’s own party who is more extreme. This inclines members to vote in an even more partisan way. In such an electoral environment, compromise is politically dangerous.
The Poverty Scorecard also shows—again—that states with the highest poverty rates tend to have Congressional delegations with the worst voting records on poverty-related issues. Why this result? Is the backlash against poor people stronger in states that have more poor people?
Please review our 2013 Poverty Scorecard. See how your member of Congress is graded and let him or her know whether you are heartened or disappointed. Look at the records of other members. Review the vote summaries to learn what were the most important poverty-related votes in Congress last year. While the results may not surprise you, they document the state of Congress and our democracy today.  


Legislative Update: Advocates Still Hard at Work in Springfield!

We are in the final stretch of the legislative session, and excited to share with you our legislative successes in Springfield thus far. Shriver Center advocates have made great strides toward passing laws that will bring justice and opportunity to low-income Illinoisans, but there is still a ways to go!

We hope you will join our efforts over the next few weeks to carry these important pieces of legislation over the finish line and to successfully block undesirable bills. If you have not done so already, please sign up for any or all of our action alerts so you can make your voices heard in Springfield!    

Asset Opportunity Legislation

Provide a Retirement Savings Plan for Illinois Workers—SB 2758/HB 4595. In early April, the Illinois Secure Choice Savings Program legislation (formerly known as Automatic IRA) passed the Illinois Senate. With a solid and comprehensive retirement savings framework for private sector workers that saves taxpayer dollars, Secure Choice has recently been endorsed by the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the State Journal-Register. Please contact your state representative and tell him or her to support this commonsense approach to ensuring all Illinoisans have the opportunity to retire in dignity. 

Budget and Tax Legislation

The Shriver Center has been a leader of the A Better Illinois campaign, which sought to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to replace the requirement that the state income tax be set at an unfair, regressive flat rate, and instead permit a Fair Tax where lower incomes would pay a lower rate and higher incomes would pay a higher rate. To get on the ballot, a constitutional amendment must obtain a 3/5 supermajority of both the Senate and House at least six months before the election. The campaign came close but was unable to secure the votes needed. Efforts to put this constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2016 are ongoing.

The Shriver Center, in its role as convener of the Responsible Budget Coalition, is one of the leads in seeking to maintain the current 5% tax rate, which is scheduled to revert to 3.75% on January 1, 2015. If this happens, the state would lose $2 billion in revenue in FY 2015 and $5 billion in FY 2016. This would result in devastating cuts to programs that serve low-income people and other vulnerable populations.

The Shriver Center is also a lead on legislation that would double the state earned income tax credit from 10% of the federal credit to 20% over five years. Contact your representatives and ask them to maintain the 5% tax rate and increase the earned income tax credit.

Community Justice Legislation

Increase the Child Support Pass-through for TANF FamiliesSB 3216. This bill, which passed the Senate in March, requires that $100 of the child support paid for one child and up to $200 for two or more children (the federal maximum) be paid to their families rather than diverted to reimburse the government for the cash Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits the families are receiving. Currently Illinois "passes through" a maximum of $50 per month of child support. Increasing the pass-through to the federal maximum not only increases the income of some of Illinois’s lowest income families but also lets noncustodial parents see that their child support payments actually help their kids, encourages noncustodial parents to pay regularly and on time, and often increases noncustodial parents' involvement in their children's lives. SB 3216 will be considered in the House soon. House members need to hear from constituents that they should vote in favor of SB 3216.

The impetus for SB 3216 came from Fathers, Families, and Healthy Communities, a responsible fathers group that helps improve outcomes for low-income children by having their fathers support them and be more involved in their lives. The bill has the strong support of many children's advocacy groups.

Move the Box or Job Opportunities for Qualified Applicants ActHB 5701On April 30 this important piece of legislation passed out of the Illinois House of Representatives with bipartisan support. HB 5701 would prohibit employers or temporary employment agencies from inquiring into someone’s criminal history in any form until after the applicant receives written notification of the employer’s intent to interview or a conditional offer of employment. The next step for the legislation is a committee hearing in the Illinois Senate, where we are hopeful for concurrence and passage. Learn more.

Seal Older Low Level Offenses—HB 2738. On March 27, HB2738 passed out of the Illinois House of Representatives, and then on May 7 it passed out of the Illinois Senate Criminal Law committee. This legislation would allow minor, older, low-level offenses (misdemeanors) to be eligible for sealing and give hard working, law abiding men and women who can demonstrate they have turned their lives around an opportunity to provide for themselves and their families. It now waits in the Senate where it is expected to pass with bipartisan support. Learn more. 

Economic Justice Legislation

Increase the AABD Grant for Certain Refugees and Asylees—SB 2735/HB 4369. Shriver Center advocates continue to gather support for legislation that would increase the monthly Social Security grants to certain elderly and disabled refugees and asylees. This bill updates and indexes the monthly grant provided to elderly and disabled refugees and asylees suspended from the federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program if they do not become U.S. citizens within seven years. The monthly grant amount of $500 was written into the statute when the program was created in 2004. This legislation would update the grant amount to restore it to 90 percent of the SSI payment level, as it was in 2004, and would index the amount to future increases in the SSI payment level. Learn more

Shriver Center advocates have also led the successful effort to defeat several proposals that sought to stigmatize and dehumanize recipients of public benefits, including bills that would have mandated drug testing, required SNAP (Food Stamp) recipients to carry a special picture ID, and limited SNAP recipients’ food choices.

Health Care Justice Legislation

Restore Critical Benefits in the Medicaid Program—HB 1516 SA2. Critical benefits were eliminated or severely restricted for Medicaid recipients in the SMART Act Medicaid Reforms in 2012. The Shriver Center has been advocating for restoration of these benefits, which include dental services for adults, prescription medications for people with mental health issues, and prescriptions for medically complex children. In the past two years, thousands of low-income Medicaid recipients have not been able to access necessary preventative medical and dental services and have instead been treated unnecessarily in emergency rooms and urgent care facilities, thus costing the state unnecessary spending. Learn more.

During this legislative session, we have provided expert testimony to the Medicaid Working Group—an ad hoc committee of legislators from the House and the Senate working on a Medicaid Omnibus bill. We are working in partnership with the leading children's hospitals in Illinois, the dental society, social service organizations, and behavioral health providers, and we hope that these critical services will be restored as part of a bigger Medicaid bill closer to the end of session in late May. In the meantime, Illinois General Assembly members need to hear from constituents that they want these services restored.

Housing Justice Legislation

Prevent Execution of Evictions by Any Peace Officer—HB 5395. The Shriver Center vigorously opposed HB 5395, which would allow any peace officer to execute an eviction if the Cook County Sheriff did not do so within 45 days. The bill would also limit the number of post-judgment requests to stop an eviction that a defendant could present in court. In addition to concerns that the bill would limit access to justice, especially by pro se litigants unfamiliar with technical pleading requirements, the bill could potentially lead to dangerous results for renters. The 45-day time limit would allow the sheriff no discretion to delay an eviction if, for example, on the 45th day weather conditions were dangerous. A sudden eviction in severe weather could place an evicted family—especially one at risk of homelessness—in harm's way. Furthermore, by allowing any peace officer within the county, on or off duty, to execute evictions, the bill could expose renters to evictions at the hands of individuals who have no supervision or training in executing court orders. At the end of a heated debate on the House floor, Rep. Monique Davis ultimately did not call the bill for a vote. The bill, which was supported by Realtors and financial institutions, does not appear to be moving at this time. We will watch for and oppose any efforts to revive it.

Protect Tenants from Eviction for Minor Noise Complaints—HB 1532. The Housing Justice Unit is opposing House Bill 1532, which is now pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  The bill would expose renters to eviction for minor municipal ordinance violations such as noise complaints.  The bill in its current form also contains language that is vague and that violates Due Process.  The Shriver Center negotiated an agreed amendment to the bill last year which led to the bill stalling out.  We are attempting to negotiate with the Senate sponsor, Sen. Tom Cullerton, and will continue to oppose the bill if an agreement cannot be reached.  

Women’s Law and Policy Project Legislation

Raise the Minimum Wage—SB 68 SA4/HB 3718. The Shriver Center continues to work in collaboration with a powerful coalition on state legislation that would raise the minimum wage. There are 400,000 minimum wage workers in Illinois who earn only $17,000 a year, working full-timewell below the annual cost of housing, health care, electricity, groceries, transportation, and child care. We are confident that our coalition will ultimately be successful, but the legislation may carry over into veto session. Learn more.

Ensure Reasonable Accommodations for Pregnant Workers-HB 8. HB 8 passed the Illinois House on April 10. It has been amended in the Senate and is poised for a full Senate vote; then, it will return to the House for concurrence. Sponsored by Rep. Mary Flowers in the House and Sen. Toi Hutchinson in the Senate, this legislation will ensure workplace fairness by requiring employers to make reasonable accommodations for conditions related to pregnancy and childbirth. Three-quarters of women now entering the workforce will become pregnant. Most pregnant women need to keep working for as long as possible during their pregnancies to support their families.  No woman should have to choose between a healthy pregnancy and her job.  We ask that you please contact your State Senator and urge him or her to vote yes on HB 8. Learn more.

Domestic Workers are Employees—SB 1708/HB 4169 HA 1. We continue to make progress on the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights legislation. This legislation would protect domestic workers from exploitation and unfair treatment by ensuring basic workplace protections affecting workers' wages, work environment, and employer obligations. Learn more.

Protect Domestic and Sexual Violence Survivors—SB 2003 and HA 1. The Shriver Center has also led the effort to amend the Workplace Violence Prevention Act, a law that became effective January 1 of this year. The Act allows employers to obtain orders of protection on behalf of its employees who are the target of any unlawful violence, including employees who are domestic and sexual violence survivors. Problems with the current law include the use of the Illinois Domestic Violence Act (IDVA) legal process for all actions under the Act, even when the violence is not related to domestic violence—an inappropriate use of the IDVA; and the very real danger that an employer’s pursuit of an order of protection may put domestic and sexual violence survivors at greater risk of harm not only on the job, but more likely, while not at work. SB 2003 and House Amendment 1 have been negotiated to remove the legal proceedings from the IDVA process and provide some protections for survivors, such as the obligation of employers to notify and consult with survivors before petitioning the court for a protective order.  The bill has been amended in the House, is poised to be voted on in the House, and then will be sent to the Senate for concurrence. 


Medicaid Is Still Open for Business

The big news in Illinois this month is that enrollments into new health care options under the Affordable Care Act from October 1, 2013 – April 15, 2014, topped the half million mark.  More than 217,000 people enrolled in the Illinois Health Insurance Marketplace and even more – 287,000 enrolled into the new Medicaid expansion. The latest Gallup poll is shoring up these enrollment numbers with related data: the U.S. uninsured rate continued to drop to its lowest monthly rate since January 2008.

This is exciting news for all of us involved in the Affordable Care Act rollout. At the Shriver Center, we help run a technical assistance center for Illinois enrollment specialists (e.g., Navigators and Certified Application Counselors). We get to hear stories every day from enrollment specialists around the state who worked hard over the past six months to get their clients connected to benefits, tax credits, and cost sharing reductions, and who are now are working hard to help customers understand and use their health care benefits – some for the very first time.

The half million mark is definitely worth celebrating; however, our enrollment work is not done. Unlike the Health Insurance Marketplace, which isn’t officially open again until November 2015 (except for those eligible for a Special Enrollment Period), Medicaid is always open for business. There is no start or end date for submitting online, phone or in person applications for Medicaid.

Illinois is one of the 26 states to have passed the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, so now all low-income individuals, children, and families are eligible for Medicaid.  It’s vital to get the word out -- people denied Medicaid in the past may now qualify.

Medicaid, like the Qualified Health Plans on the Marketplace, must cover Essential Health Benefits, including pediatric dental and vision care. That means low-income children, individuals, and families will have access to preventive care, emergency room care, behavioral health care services, doctors’ visits and other critical services. In addition, as the state’s coordinated care efforts continue to roll out, each Medicaid recipient will be connected to a primary care provider to help monitor and coordinate his or her care.

Please help spread the word that Medicaid enrollment is open all year round. If someone you know is eligible and needs health insurance, they have not missed out. You can help them enroll online themselves or connect them with a certified enrollment specialist.

Let’s continue to push Illinois past the half million mark! 


Act Now: Illinois Lawmakers Are Deciding Whether to Maintain the Current 5% Income Tax Rate and Provide Tax Relief to Low-Wage Workers

Maintaining the Current 5% Income Tax Rate.

The Illinois General Assembly is three weeks away from adjourning on May 31 and deeply enmeshed in tax and budget negotiations. The main issue is whether to maintain the current 5% state income tax rate or to let it revert to 3.75% on January 1, 2015, as scheduled.

If the current 5% state income tax is not maintained, Illinois will lose around $2 billion in revenue in FY 2015, which would force drastic cuts in services. The biggest and most devastating impact would fall on the Illinos State Board of Education (ISBE), whose budget would be slashed by $633 million, and the Department of Human Services (DHS), whose budget would be slashed by $400 million. These almost unimaginable cuts would be far greater in FY 2016, when the revenue loss from failing to maintain the current 5% tax rate would be $5 billion.

In addition to the human suffering that this would cause, cuts of this magnitude would be extremely short-sighted from a fiscal standpoint, as they would have multiple negative consequences for Illinois taxpayers. State facilities for people with physical, mental and developmental disabilities would be decertified. Billions in Medicaid and other federal matching funds would go unclaimed. State agencies would be held in contempt of various court orders involving the transition of eligible individuals from institutional to community-based care and would sustain large fines. The state’s credit rating would continue to tumble. Also, the progress that has been made in paying Illinois’s unpaid bills down to $5 billion would be reversed.

Doubling the Earned Income Tax Credit

House Bill 4474, sponsored by Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie and with 35 co-sponsors, would double Illinois’s earned income tax credit (EITC) from 10% of the federal credit to 20%. The increase would occur over 5 years, in 2% increments. A similar increase was included with Governor Quinn’s proposal to maintain Illinois’ current 5% income tax rate. Attention to this part of Governor Quinn’s proposal has been diverted by the campaign to promote a fair tax to replace Illinois’s unfair, regressive flat tax requirement. Now that the deadline for getting a constitutional amendment to allow the fair tax on the ballot has passed, there is renewed interest in bringing some measure of fairness to the tax code by increasing the EITC.

The EITC is fully targeted to working poor families. It is a credit on earnings that phases out as a family’s income increases. The federal EITC lifts far more families out of poverty than any other program and lifts millions more families closer to the poverty line. It has always enjoyed broad bipartisan support because of its emphasis on boosting incomes for workers.

A companion bill to HB 4474 is being sponsored by Sen. Jackie Collins in the Senate. These are freestanding bills that could also be combined with the bill maintaining the current 5% income tax rate.

Contact your state legislators

There is no more important time to contact your state legislators than right now, in the next two weeks. Locate your state legislator here. Email or call their offices and let them know you support maintaining Illinois’s current 5% income tax rate and doubling Illinois’s earned income tax credit from 10 to 20 % of the federal EITC. 


Illinois Keeps Its Eye on the Back Door: Medicaid Renewals

In Illinois, we’ve been busy enrolling more than 260,000 newly eligible adults through Medicaid’s front door. But we’ve also had our eye on Medicaid’s back door to make sure we don’t lose Medicaid-eligibles through the annual renewal process.

The state has been working with us at the Shriver Center and other stakeholders on a “Medicaid Redetermination Project” to streamline the process for Medicaid renewals (sometimes called “redeterminations” or “REDEs"). This includes work on the regular annual renewals and new MAGI-based renewals. Some key practices that are already helping to facilitate renewals in Illinois include:

  • using electronic data from verification databases to pre-populate forms with updated information prior to sending them by mail to recipients;
  • providing different forms (scroll down to “client redetermination notices” to see the different forms in English and Spanish) for the MAGI and non-MAGI populations to eliminate confusion and reduce the need for recipients to answer questions that are not relevant to their eligibility;
  • shortening the renewal forms to under 3 pages;
  • the ability to reinstate cases—if the case is cancelled for non-compliance with the renewal process—without the need to re-apply or appeal.

We still have work to do to improve the Illinois renewal process both in policy and in practice. We are monitoring the initial mailing of renewal forms to assess whether there is a high percentage of non-response or terminations. We are also trying to collect more information and clarification on the Illinois renewal process through the Medicaid Advisory Committee. We are also working to ensure that Illinois allows at least 30 days to respond to renewal requests and at least 90 days to reinstate cancelled cases.

We hope that other states will also keep their eye on the back door and share strategies about what is working for them with Medicaid renewals.

Funding for Human Services in Illinois Hangs in the Balance

Funding for programs needed by the most vulnerable people in Illinois, including the developmentally disabled, the mentally ill, the substance addicted, and children in deep poverty and their families, would be slashed if the temporary 5% income tax rate adopted in January 2011 falls to 3.75% on January 1, 2015, as scheduled.

On March 26, Illinois Governor Quinn released his proposed budget, which assumes that the 5% tax rate will become permanent, as he advocates. At the same time, he released a “not recommended” budget showing the funding cuts that will be necessary if the tax rate falls to 3.75%.

While Speaker Madigan and President Cullerton have indicated their support for making the 5% tax rate permanent, there are only five weeks left before the General Assembly adjourns on May 31, and yet no action has been taken.

The Shriver Center’s earlier report on the drastic cuts facing human services if the temporary tax increase is not made permanent was based on committee testimony from the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS). On April 9, IDHS testified before the House Appropriations–Human Services Committee and gave a much fuller picture of what would happen if the “not recommended budget” is adopted. This report is based on that testimony.

Overall Impact

IDHS would be required to cut its FY15 spending by $398 million, or 12.5%. Under Governor Quinn’s proposed budget, human services funding would increase by $500 million. Hence, there is nearly a $1 billion difference in proposed human services funding depending on whether the income tax rate falls to 3.75% or remains at 5%.

Another major issue is staffing. Under the “not recommended” budget, local office staff would be reduced by more than 1,000, which would decimate IDHS’s ability to provide services and lead to long delays in providing benefits.

Alcohol and Substance Abuse

Funding for alcohol and substance abuse services has been cut by $133 million since 2009. Under the Governor’s “not recommended” budget, funding would be cut by another $29 million (24%) from $120 million to $91 million. This would mean that 16,000 fewer people would receive addiction services. Many of these untreated individuals could wind up being housed in state or community hospitals, crisis centers, homeless shelters, jails, or on the streets. Moreover, 6,000 fewer jail diversions would be available, and release dates for incarcerated individuals would be delayed due to reduced access to after-release treatment services. Providers of addiction services, who last received a rate increase nine years ago, would have their rates cut.

Developmentally Disabled

Funding for services to developmentally disabled individuals has been cut by $31 million since 2009. Under the Governor’s “not recommended” budget, funding would be cut by another $189 million (18%) from $1.047 billion to $858 million. Staffing would be reduced by 782, and 25,000 developmentally disabled adults would lose community-based services. The seven state-operated facilities would risk being decertified, which would cost Illinois $180 million in Medicaid funding and expose the state to litigation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Rebalancing, Governor Quinn’s initiative to enable hundreds of people with disabilities to move out of large institutions and into their own homes in the community would be halted.

Mental Health

Funding for mental health services has been cut by $411 million since 2009. Under the Governor’s “not recommended” budget, funding would be cut by another $54 million (11%) from $506 million to $452 million. This would mean 140,000 individuals would have reduced access to basic services, including therapy and medication, 35,000 people would no longer receive any services, and 10,000 people would not receive needed crisis services.

Rehabilitation Services

Funding would be cut by $61 million (10%) from $640 million to $579 million. This reduction would mean that 16,400 current customers would no longer be served.

Child Care

Cuts would result in 41,000 children and 23,000 families losing child care that allows parents to work or go to school.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families

Monthly income support grants to needy children and their families would be cut by 25%.

Early Intervention

Cuts would eliminate services for 7,300 developmentally delayed young children.

Supportive Housing and Homeless Services

Cuts would eliminate services for 13,600 people, including 500 homeless youth, which would significantly increase the homeless population.

In addition to these human impacts, these reductions in services would have multiple fiscal impacts on the state. Federal funding would go unclaimed or be forfeited, the state would be held in contempt of various court orders, and state facilities would be decertified.

Action Needed

To avert these disastrous massive cuts to human services, contact your state senator and state representative today and urge them to support the Governor’s budget including an extension of the 5% income tax rate.  

Copies of any correspondence also should be sent to the chairs of the appropriations committees with oversight of human services, Sen. Heather Steans, and Rep. Greg Harris.


An Ounce of Prevention: New Regulations Aim to Reduce Black Lung Disease

Coal minerBlack lung disease has long been the scourge of coal miners. After years of breathing coal dust, a miner’s lungs may become scarred and stiff and emphysematous. The miner feels smothered, even when at rest. The disease, formally known as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, is progressive and incurable and downright torturous.

Yesterday the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) took its first action in more than 40 years to reduce the level of exposure to respirable coal dust. Contrary to popular belief, mines do not have to be as dusty as they have been; with proper ventilation and dust suppressants, dust levels can be lowered significantly. MSHA’s new regulations reduce the permissible level of dust, eliminate averaging the measurement of samples of mine air, mandate that air samples be taken when a mine is operating at no less than 80 percent of production, and require continuous personal dust monitors so miners can measure the air quality of their work environment. The new changes will be phased in over two years. Coal miners’ advocates are hailing the long-awaited changes.

MSHA’s new regulations come hot on the heels of other big black lung news. Last week Chris Hamby of the Center for Public Integrity won the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for his three-part series, Breathless and Burdened: Dying from Black Lung, Buried by Law and Medicine. The series uncovered doctors and lawyers working together to defeat disabled coal miners’ claims for benefits under the federal Black Lung Benefits Program and ultimately caused Johns Hopkins to suspend its black lung program and led to congressional calls for an investigation.

The federal Black Lung Benefits Program dates back to 1969 and was designed to compensate coal miners who became disabled by black lung disease. It remains an important source of income for disabled miners, their families, and their survivors. The Black Lung Benefits Act and its various amendments created a labyrinthine system of claims, appeals, remands, and competing medical evidence. For many years, the approval rate of claims for federal black lung benefits languished in the single digits.

But a little-heralded change in the law brought about by the Affordable Care Act has dramatically improved the approval rates of claims for black lung benefits. Stephen A. Sanders, the director of the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center and an expert on black lung benefits, explains the complicated black lung program and its recent changes in his Clearinghouse Review article, Black Lung Benefits for Disabled Coal Miners and Their Families. As Sanders explains, the Affordable Care Act amended the Black Lung Benefits Act in two major ways:

  1. It created an automatic entitlement to benefits for a survivor of a miner who had been awarded benefits at the time of his death; before this change, survivors had to refile claims and essentially re-prove the medical case for black lung benefits; and
  2. Disabled miners who worked at least 15 years in underground coal mining now benefit from a rebuttable presumption that their disability is due to black lung disease; if the miner is dead, the survivor has a rebuttable presumption that the disabled miner’s death was due to black lung.

The changes brought about by the Affordable Care Act have eased what used to be a decades-long administrative slog for disabled miners trying to receive their black lung benefits. But yesterday’s final rule by MSHA to reduce coal dust exposure in the mines may help more miners avoid ever having to suffer the excruciating symptoms of black lung disease in the first place.


A Welcome Clog in Rhode Island's School-to-Sheltered-Workshop Pipeline

Smiling womanMarie has a developmental disability. She is employed but not in a competitive workplace. Rather, Marie works in a “sheltered workshop,” a segregated workplace for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The sheltered workshop has not offered Marie any job training or support that will allow her to move to competitive employment, as she would like to do. Nor has anyone there asked her about her interests or goals. Rather, she was directed to the workshop straight from high school and has spent years there earning about $2 an hour, far below the minimum wage.

Under federal disability and rehabilitation laws, Marie should not be stuck in this situation. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—more commonly known as “IDEA”—and the Rehabilitation Act are supposed to effect a smooth transition from high school to targeted employment, with school officials and vocational rehabilitation agencies working together. And the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that services for people with disabilities—such as those of vocational rehabilitation agencies—be offered in the most integrated setting that is appropriate. Marie’s long tenure at the sheltered workshop falls far short of these goals.

While Marie is a fictional character for illustrative purposes, in reality, more than 400,000 people like her are working in sheltered workshops across the country. Many of them work there for years after being placed there directly from high school. This path has been called the “school-to-sheltered-workshop pipeline,” echoing the lament of other civil rights advocates about the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

But just this month, the U.S. Department of Justice struck a blow to the sheltered-workshop pipeline in Rhode Island. What began as a Fair Labor Standards Act investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor—the workshop in question sometimes paid its employees less than $1 an hour—turned into a Justice Department investigation into violations of the ADA and IDEA. The Justice Department found a clear pipeline from a local special education program to a sheltered workshop. It also found a broader statewide pattern of segregation: about 80 percent of people receiving such state services were placed in sheltered workshops and similar segregated programs, and only 5 percent of students with developmental disabilities moved from school into jobs in integrated settings.

This month’s agreement between the Justice Department and Rhode Island gives the state 10 years to take specific actions to fix its violations of the ADA and to end the school-to-sheltered-workshop pipeline and unwanted segregated employment for individuals with developmental disabilities. The agreement has been hailed as long-overdue progress and could serve as a nationwide model.

Coincidentally, the current issue of Clearinghouse Review: Journal of Poverty Law and Policy, which has an education law theme, contains an article that dives deeper into this phenomenon. Ronald M. Hager’s article, Stemming the School-to-Sheltered-Workshop Pipeline, looks at the failures of the rehabilitation system to assist students with developmental disabilities as they transition from high school to employment. He lays out in detail how schools and rehabilitation agencies can use a student’s individualized education program (IEP) to make a smooth, holistic transition from school to the world beyond. And he relates the interesting history of the case in Rhode Island that settled last week.

The forthcoming May-June issue of Clearinghouse Review will further explore the challenges facing individuals with disabilities and low income. In anticipation of the issue, the Shriver Center will host a webinar on May 7 looking at alternatives to guardianship for individuals with intellectual and mental health disabilities. Finding less-restrictive alternatives to guardianship, much like ending segregated sheltered workshops, is one more way advocates can work to preserve the autonomy of their clients with disabilities.



Will a Building Boom Be a Bust for Low-Income Residents?

House under constructionHousing affordability has become one of the hottest issue in America's urban centers, and one popular solution is to ramp up housing construction. In his first State of the City address, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio emphasized that in order to solve its affordability problem, the city must work with developers to build more housing. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee similarly focused his own annual address on an ambitious plan to build 30,000 units of housing by 2020.

The logic behind this building push rests on the simple principles of supply and demand and the assumption that increasing the supply of homes will lower housing costs. The reason rents are too high, it’s claimed, is because there is great demand for a relatively small number of apartments. Therefore increasing the supply of homes will lower housing costs. But while building seems to be the obvious solution, it's a policy choice that comes with complex questions. Who should build the homes, and who should live in them? Where should the homes be built? If we don't get the answers to these and other questions right, a pro-building policy will do little to ease housing costs of low-income residents, and will likely end up accelerating their displacement from our cities.

The choice of who builds new homes will influence who lives in them. Private, for-profit developers are only likely to build affordable housing if it’s profitable and if there aren't more attractive business opportunities. If we chose to deregulate zoning and rely on the private sector to build (a policy currently championed by liberals and conservatives alike), we'll end up with more housing for the wealthy, as that's what makes developers the most money.

It should be obvious that the development of luxury condos is not a solution to a housing affordability crisis, but advocates of deregulation, like popular economics blogger and The Rent is Too Damn High author Matt Yglesias and urban economist Ed Glaeser, insist that even those who can't afford to live in these homes will benefit. When a high-income person moves into a new luxury unit, the argument goes, she frees up her old home for a slightly lower-income person to move in. This scenario repeats itself, providing new housing opportunities all the way down the economic ladder.

However, this model doesn’t take into account who is really buying these new luxury properties and why they’re buying them. In cities that attract new real estate buyers from around the world, such as New York and San Francisco, the homes left behind by new luxury condo residents will often be in another housing market, providing no new housing opportunities for existing residents. The most stunning example can be found in Central London, where 70% of all newly built homes are bought by foreigners. In New York, foreign buyers accounted for one out of every three condo purchases in 2011.

And in some cases, the purchasers of these new properties don’t leave any homes behind at all—luxury condos are often bought as real estate investments or second homes. Housing appreciation is so high in these cities that investors have little incentive to rent out their property, leaving some stretches of Manhattan looking like ghost towns.

This spatial mismatch between people and housing, as well as speculative real estate investment, mean that private sector housing development will have diminishing returns as we move down the economic ladder. Vacant homes will be snapped up by speculators and out-of-towners before they ever reach low-income tenants. This creates a scenario where a city will have to satisfy external housing demand before it can even begin to address the housing needs of its current low-income residents. At best, this is a spectacularly inefficient way to deliver affordable housing to those who need it the most; at worst, it doesn't deliver at all.

The federal government must again focus on subsidizing the construction of more affordable housing rather than bankrolling the demolition of our nation's federally assisted housing stock. Indeed, a new Urban Institute study found Atlanta and Chicago, two of the country’s most prolific demolishers of public housing, to be among the cities that made the least progress toward meeting their affordable housing needs over the past decade.

Whether it’s governments or developers, or both, that end up building, it's clear they will have a lot of work to do. We'll need to drastically change parts of our cities in order to build enough housing to make them affordable again. This raises a final question: Which parts of our cities—or, more appropriately, whose parts—will be transformed by this building boom? America's experience with urban renewal and gentrification has taught us that it is largely low-income communities that are destroyed in order to create new housing opportunities. If upper- and middle-income residents aren't willing to share the burden this time around, or if governments lack the political courage to enforce an equitable development plan, then a building boom may only exacerbate the housing problems of low-income residents.