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.

Fair Tax in Play as Illinois's Leaders Propose Tax Reforms and Greater Fairness

It was an exciting week for A Better Illinois, the campaign to amend the Illinois Constitution to permit a fair tax under which lower rates apply to lower income levels and higher rates apply to higher income levels. Senator Don Harmon, the constitutional amendment’s sponsor, proposed a tax rate structure that would replace Illinois’s 5% flat tax if the amendment is approved by the voters in November. Under Harmon’s plan, 94 percent of Illinois taxpayers would pay less than they are paying now. That includes everyone whose income is less than $200,000. Here is a chart that shows how much taxes would be cut at different income levels:

Illinois Fair Tax Proposed Rate Structure
Income Current Rate New Rate Tax Cut
$12,000 5.0% 2.90% $221
$23,839 5.0% 3.42% $272
$55,137 5.0% 4.26% $303
$75,000 5.0% 4.43% $323
$100,000 5.0% 4.55% $348
$150,000 5.0% 4.66% $398
$180,000 5.0% 4.70% $428
$200,000 5.0% 4.80% $90

Senator Harmon’s proposal is revenue neutral, meaning that the overall revenue collected would be about the same as is collected now. 

A few days before Senator Harmon announced his fair tax rate plan, House Speaker Michael Madigan introduced a proposal to impose a 3 percent income tax surcharge on millionaires. The two proposals dovetail nicely. Both recognize the need to amend the Illinois Constitution. Both seek to address the unfairness of a system under which millionaires and minimum wage workers have the same tax rate. Both shift more of the tax burden onto those who can afford it, and thereby capture income where virtually all economic growth is occurring. Harmon’s plan adds fairness throughout the tax structure, so that people with lower incomes have lower rates and people with higher incomes have higher rates. The top bracket in Harmon’s scale starts at $180,000. The Speaker’s plan, with its 3 percent surcharge starting at $1 million, can be layered on top of Harmon’s.

The Speaker’s surcharge would raise an estimated $1 billion, all of which would be given to school districts to be used as they see fit.

The day after Sen. Harmon announced his fair tax rate plan, Governor Pat Quinn proposed his fiscal year 2015 budget. He actually proposed two budgets, one based on the scheduled expiration of the 5% tax rate on January 1, 2015, which would create a $2.5 billion revenue hole and force state agencies to cut their discretionary spending by 20%, with disastrous human and fiscal impacts. The other budget is essentially a maintenance budget with some major new education and early childhood initiatives that would take effect if, as he urged, the 5% income tax rate is made permanent. 

In addition to urging that the income tax rate hike be made permanent, Governor Quinn proposed doubling the state earned income tax credit for low-wage workers from 10% of the federal credit to 20%, over five years. He also proposed eliminating the state's property tax credit for homeowners, which currently averages about $250, and replacing it with an automatic $500 tax refund. Thus, Governor Quinn joined A Better Illinois in recognizing the need for tax reform and tax relief.

The day after the governor announced his proposed fiscal year 2015 budget, the House Revenue Committee passed Speaker Madigan’s millionaire’s tax surcharge and held the Fair Tax amendment in committee. It is apparently Speaker Madigan’s intent to put the Fair Tax amendment on hold while he move the surcharge amendment through the House. Sen. Harmon is full speed ahead on getting the Senate to pass the Fair Tax amendment.

All in all, it was a week of major and hopeful developments for supporters of a Fair Tax in Illinois.

Find out how much your tax cut would be. Go to www.FairTaxCut.com.


Human Services Armageddon

The temporary increase in Illinois’s state income tax adopted in January 2011 is scheduled to expire at the end of 2014, at which time the tax rate will fall from 5 percent to 3.75 percent. This will cause a loss in revenue in fiscal year 2015 of $2.4 billion.

Many politicians and at least one major media outlet support letting the 5 percent rate expire. As usual, these proponents of cutting taxes and spending offer no specifics on what programs should be cut or eliminated.

Last week, at a joint hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committees, the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) provided a grim account of the impact cutting $2.4 billion from the state budget would have on human services programs.

IDHS began by enumerating the cuts that already have occurred. From fiscal year 2009 to fiscal year 2014, services to the developmentally disabled were cut by $31 million; to alcohol and substance abuse by $133 million; and to mental health by $411 million.

If the state budget is cut by $2.4 billion, IDHS-administered programs would be cut by $636 million, and IDHS’s staffing would be reduced by 2,500. IDHS explained the impact that cuts of this magnitude would have, assuming the cuts are made across-the-board:

Developmentally Disabled. Funding would be cut by $270 million, staffing would be reduced by 782, and 25,000 developmentally disabled adults would lose community-based services. The seven state-operated facilities would be at risk of 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 home in the community, would be halted.

Family and Community Services. Funding would be cut by $188 million and staffing would be reduced by 860, with over 800 of those lost staff coming from the Family Community Resource Centers (local offices). This would result in payment delays that violate federal and state law. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) grants, already set at just 26 percent of the federal poverty level, would be reduced by 25 percent. Child care funding would be cut by $51 million; 39,000 children and 23,000 families would lose services. By failing to meet its state match requirement, Illinois would jeopardize $585 million in federal TANF block grant funds.

Early Intervention. Funding would be cut by $15 million and 6,000 fewer children with developmental delays would receive services.

Mental Health. Funding would be cut by $101 million, staffing would be reduced by 567, and 140,000 community-based clients would lose mental health services. More children would wind up in the juvenile justice system. More adults would go to hospital emergency rooms and become homeless.

Alcohol and Substance Abuse. Funding would be cut by $24 million, and 10,000 fewer persons with addictions would be served. More would wind up in jail, state hospitals, emergency rooms and homeless.

Home Services. Funding would be cut by $68 million, and 18,000 elderly clients would lose their services, threatening their ability to continue living at home.

When IDHS was finished with its testimony, the Senators had no questions.


Four Gifts the Affordable Care Act Has Given Americans by Its Fourth Birthday

Birthday cakeOn March 23, 2014, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) turned four. In its relatively short life, the ACA has already accomplished a great deal. To celebrate, here’s a list of the top four gifts that the ACA has given to the American people:

1. No More Pre-existing Condition Exclusions

Before the ACA was law, insurance companies routinely denied people health coverage due to “pre-existing conditions,” which could range from common chronic conditions such as asthma and arthritis to diseases such as cancer or mental illness. However, as of September 2010, children could no longer be denied coverage due to a pre-existing condition, and as of January 2014, adults are now enjoying that same right.

By way of example, on
HelpHub, the Illinois site that provides technical assistance to enrollment specialists, we have heard many stories about people who are beginning to obtain insurance after being told for years that they are were “uninsurable.” Families USA estimates that 64.8 million non-elderly Americans—or 1 in 4 people—have been diagnosed with pre-existing conditions that could have led to denials of coverage in the past. That’s over 5.6 million people in Illinois alone who can no longer be turned down or charged more for health insurance.

Though over half of the public know about this “gift” from the ACA, according to a January 2014 Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll,
53% of the uninsured remain unaware of this provision. We need to continue to publicize this incredible benefit of the law.

2. Financial Help to Obtain Insurance

Aside from pre-existing condition exclusions, another major barrier to accessing health insurance has been cost. Since employers have not been required to offer coverage, many low-wage workers never received an offer of coverage and were priced out of the individual insurance market.

Through the new Health Insurance Marketplaces, the ACA created three new ways to make health insurance more affordable. The first is premium tax credits, which can be taken by Marketplace consumers in advance to lower the amount of premium the individual or family must pay for their coverage. Consumers with incomes under $45,960 for a single individual and $94,200 for a family of four are eligible for these credits. The Department of Health and Human Services reports, for example, that nearly 5 in 10 uninsured single young adults eligible for the Marketplace could pay $50 or less per month after tax credits for coverage in 2014.

The second form of financial help provided by the ACA is cost-sharing reductions. These reduce the out-of-pocket costs, such as deductibles, copays, and co-insurance, that health care consumers can expect. Cost sharing reductions are available to health insurance Marketplace consumers who make between 100% and 250% of the federal poverty level who purchase a Silver plan. Why does this matter? It means lower prices for doctors’ visits, prescription drugs, and other care that people need—which is particularly important for people who utilize a high amount of services.

Recent enrollment numbers indicate that people are signing up for these subsidies, too. As of February 2014, 85% of Healthcare.gov enrollees qualified for premium tax credits, while 67% consumers chose Silver plans, indicating that they may also qualify for cost sharing reductions.

3. Medicaid Expansion

The ACA mandated a Medicaid expansion to all qualified adults below 138% of the federal poverty level (about $15,800/year for a single individual); this mandate filled a huge coverage gap in Medicaid eligibility for low-income adults. In June 2012, however, the United States Supreme Court made this expansion optional, and currently just half the states and Washington, D.C., have expanded Medicaid. Illinois is one of those states; last July, Governor Quinn signed the Medicaid Expansion (SB 26) into law, and according to reports at the recent Illinois Health Reform Implementation Council meeting enrollment into Medicaid has already exceeded expectations.

The number of Illinois residents enrolled in ACA Adult Medicaid is now at 200,000. This includes all Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) auto-enrollment and enrollment in CountyCare, the early expansion of Medicaid in Cook County, the largest county in Illinois )which includes Chicago and some of its collar suburbs). Of pending applications, the state expects another 150,000 will be eligible for ACA Adult Medicaid. Overall for 2014, it is anticipated that Illinois will enroll over 400,000 adults into the new Medicaid program. 

Together, the Premium Tax Credits, Cost Sharing Reductions and the ACA Medicaid Expansion provide low-income families with the gift of affordable health care.

4. Essential Health Benefits

The ACA gift that people probably know the least about is the
10 Essential Health Benefits (EHB) that must be included in Medicaid and health plans in the individual and small group markets. Under EHB, not only must plans now include a range of free preventive services and screenings, but also prescription drugs, lab tests, dental and vision care for children, and mental health and substance use disorder services, among other critical services. The Essential Health Benefits package ensures comprehensive services are included in your policy so you aren’t left paying premiums for shoddy coverage.

These gifts have already started to make a huge difference to the American people. The uninsured rate is decreasing; and stories from around the country are streaming in about people who are able to see a doctor when they hadn’t for years, families who are able to afford their premiums every month, and individuals who finally have peace of mind because they have a good health insurance policy when they need it.

We can’t wait to see what the next four years of the ACA brings.


The Shriver Center Goes to Springfield: Our 2014 Legislative Agenda

The new legislative session is in full swing. Shriver Center advocates hope to pass new laws that will improve the lives of low- and middle-income people and expand access to opportunity and mobility for all Illinoisans. We will also be playing defense to ensure that laws that stigmatize and punish low- and middle-income Illinoisans don’t make it past committee floors. Our Illinois agenda informs our overall work to advance justice and opportunity for people living in poverty.

We hope you will support us over the next few months to get these important pieces of legislation passed, and to block undesirable bills. Below are a few of the many pieces of affirmative legislation we are working on that are likely to require community support.

Please sign up for any or all of our action alerts so you can make your voices heard in Springfield!    

Asset Opportunity Legislation

Illinois Secure Choice Savings Program—Senate Bill (SB) 2758/House Bill (HB) 4595. Two and a half million private-sector workers in Illinois do not have access to employment-based retirement tools and are increasingly at risk of retiring into poverty. The Secure Choice Savings Program solves this problem by giving every worker in Illinois access to a portable retirement savings account through his or her employer and the opportunity to build a financially secure future. It ensures universal coverage, and is the simple, safe and affordable way to help all workers retire in dignity. Learn more. Sign up for action alerts on Asset Opportunities.

Budget and Tax Justice Legislation

Constitutional Amendment to Eliminate the Flat Tax Rate Requirement and Allow a Fair Tax—SJRCA 40/HJRCA 33. This bill would amend the Illinois Constitution by deleting the requirement of a flat state income tax rate and replacing it with the option of a fair tax, under which people with lower incomes would pay lower rates and people with higher incomes would pay higher rates. Unlike a flat tax, which taxes everyone at the same rate regardless of his or her income, a fair tax is based on ability to pay. A fair tax amendment to the constitution would give lawmakers the tools they need respond to changing economic pressures on the middle class. A vote for the fair tax amendment only puts the issue on the ballot in the general election this November, allowing voters to have the final say when it comes to whether Illinois adopts the option of a fair tax. Learn more. Sign a petition in support. Sign up for action alerts on Budget and Tax.

Community Justice Legislation

Best Candidate for the Job Act—HB 2846. This bill would codify standards for considering men and women with criminal records for employment and licensing opportunities that mirror a similar law in New York (New York Correction Law, Article 23-A) and the EEOC’s recent guidance. The bill would also create a private right of action to hold entities accountable for not adhering to this law, and ensure that those with Certificates of Good Conduct or Relief from Disability are not denied positions simply because of their record.

Moving the Box—HB 5701This bill 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 Shriver Center’s Community Justice advocates are also working:

  • to make sure that Minor Crimes Don’t Preclude Opportunity (HB 2378);
  • to Eliminate Lifetime Bans to Major Employment (HB 4432, HB 4471, HB 4472, HB 4473, HB 4580) for individuals who have completed their sentences and have not had another conviction within four years of their release; and
  • to support the Compassionate Release (HB 3668) of incarcerated seniors (over 50 years of age) who have served over 25 years or more (and possibly those suffering from terminal illnesses).

We are also opposing Mandatory Minimums (HB 5672). Sign up for action alerts on Community Justice.

Economic Justice Legislation

Refugee AABD Grant Update—SB 2735/HB 4369. 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. Sign up for action alerts on Economic Justice.

Health Care Justice Legislation

Restoration of Adult Dental in the State’s Medicaid Program—HB 1516 SA2. This bill would require the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services (DHFS) to restore non-emergency dental services as a benefit for adults in the Medicaid program. Illinois eliminated these services as a Medicaid benefit for most adults in 2012. Restoration of these benefits is medically critical and cost effective. Every averted dental-related emergency room visit saves the state 10 times more than the cost of preventative care. Learn more. Sign up for action alerts on health care.

Housing Justice Legislation

Fair Tenant Screening Act—HB 4778. This bill establishes basic consumer protections for residential tenant applications. Among other things, it provides protections to ensure that landlords cannot charge an application fee that is more than the actual out-of-pocket costs to evaluate the application. If the landlord declines to rent, the tenant must be told the reason for the denial, and provide a copy of any third party information that led to the denial. Learn more. Sign up for action alerts on housing.

Women’s Law and Policy Project Legislation

Raise the Minimum Wage—SB 68 SA4/HB 3718. This legislation would raise the minimum wage to $10.65 an hour over three years, thus restoring it to its historic level. In Illinois, six in ten minimum wage workers are women. Over 400,000 Illinois workers in Illinois know that having a minimum wage job is not enough to keep up with inflation and stay out of poverty. Raising the minimum wage is the solution. Learn more.

Domestic Workers Bill of Rights—SB 1708/HB 4714. Domestic workers play a critical role in the Illinois economy. Despite the value of their work, domestic workers have historically been excluded from protections under state law extended to workers in other industries. This has led to a workforce, predominantly composed of women supporting their own families, that is isolated and vulnerable. SB 1708/HB 4714 will ensure that domestic workers are paid no less than the minimum wage, are paid for all work hours, and have the right to be free from sexual harassment, among other guarantees. Learn more.

Ensuring Success in School—HB 2213. The Ensuring Success in School Act addresses the educational and related needs of children and youths who are parents, expectant parents, or survivors of domestic or sexual violence to ensure their ability to stay in school, stay safe, and complete their education. HB 2213 fosters enrollment in school and school attendance, supports efforts to increase academic success, and provides guidance to schools. Learn more.

Reasonable Accommodations for Pregnant Workers—HB 8 (HA 1). Many pregnant workers are forced out of their jobs because their employers deny them simple work modifications—like a stool to sit on, permission to carry a water bottle, a break from lifting heavy boxes—that would allow them to remain productive employees, provide for their families, and maintain a healthy pregnancy. HB 8 (HA 1) promotes workplace fairness for pregnant workers by requiring employers to make reasonable accommodations for conditions related to pregnancy, childbirth, and related conditions, unless such accommodations would cause an undue hardship on the employer. Learn more. Sign up for action alerts on women’s issues.


Innovative Technology Projects Are Connecting Pro Bono Lawyers with Clients

Books and computerWhether they work in private practice, for nonprofits, or for state or local governments, lawyers have many demands on their time. For lawyers at private companies and law firms interested in pro bono work, the time and effort involved in locating an appropriate pro bono client can be enough to discourage them from doing any pro bono work at all. Fortunately, innovative technology projects, supported by the Legal Services Corporation and others, are making it easier for lawyers to find pro bono clients and for clients to find legal help.

At the national level, Pro Bono Net has been connecting private attorneys with pro bono opportunities since 1999. Now a national nonprofit powerhouse, when Pro Bono Net started, it focused on two practice areas in New York City. Pro Bono Net not only connects lawyers with pro bono clients, it also provides constant support in the form of training events, mentors, and searchable libraries of practice resources. Pro Bono Net’s model has been adopted in 30 states, and many state-specific websites can be reached through the “Regional Sites” button in the top left-hand corner of the Pro Bono Net site.

The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) also recognizes that technological innovation can improve access to justice. LSC supports the use of technology to help low-income litigants through its Technology Initiative Grant (TIG) program. In 2013, the TIG program gave almost $3.4 million to 33 different projects providing a wide variety of services, including “‘legal triage’ tools to guide self-represented individuals through complex legal procedures, online support for pro bono attorneys, and improved access to legal assistance for people in remote areas.” LSC also holds an annual conference focusing on the use of technology in the legal aid community and releases reports on the use of technology to expand access to justice.

Most states have a statewide website for legal aid attorneys, a statewide site for clients, and a statewide site for pro bono attorneys. But attorneys who do not have a connection to a legal aid organization may encounter difficulty learning about pro bono opportunities that match their skills and interests. To make pro bono opportunities more accessible, IllinoisProBono.org, the site for pro bono legal professionals in Illinois, maintains a searchable system of pro bono opportunities throughout the state. This newly updated volunteer opportunity search and internship application system maintained by Illinois Legal Aid Online makes it easier for attorneys, law students, and other legal professionals to find pro bono opportunities, internships, and fellowships online. Volunteers can then apply for the opportunities in which they are interested with one click of the mouse. They can also sign up for upcoming trainings and access free legal resources and continuing legal education videos to support their pro bono work. 

Some web sites that offer ways for attorneys to find pro bono clients with cases in specific practice areas. Immigration Advocates Network maintains an online Pro Bono Resource Center for pro bono attorneys representing low-income immigrants.

Technology not only helps lawyers find pro bono clients, however—the reverse is also true. The internet also helps low-income people find legal help. First, Pro Bono Net also maintains LawHelp.org, which “helps low and moderate-income people find free legal aid programs in their communities, answers to questions about their legal rights, court information, links to social service agencies, and more.” Many state-specific pro bono resource sites also contain information for low-income people seeking legal help. There are also topic-specific sites that provide people with legal guidance in specific areas of the law. Stateside Legal, for example, provides veterans with legal information on a range of topics, including but not limited to benefits, consumer law, and family law. Veterans can also use the site to find legal help in their hometowns. (Stateside Legal was launched with a 2009 TIG grant.) Immigration Advocates Network also maintains a citizenship page that helps people determine their eligibility for citizenship online and answers questions about the naturalization process.

The Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services has put a new spin on providing pro bono services online. The alliance has created a new program, OnlineTNJustice.org, which allows low-income Tennesseans to email lawyers directly with questions about civil legal issues. Before people can participate, they have to answer some screening questions about their age, family composition, income, and the kind of legal problem they are trying solve. People who qualify for the program can post then post their civil legal questions and a volunteer attorney will answer them.  

As the president of the Tennessee Bar Association observes on the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services’ website, “nearly 70% of Tennesseans living in poverty had a civil legal need in the past year.” Tennessee’s legal aid and legal services attorneys are simply not able to reach every person in need, particularly those people living in rural areas. OnlineTNJustice.org allows Tennessee’s attorneys to close the justice gap and help more people solve their civil legal problems.

Have you had a good experience using technology to find a pro bono opportunity or an answer to a thorny legal problem? We would love to hear about it.  Please contact Clearinghouse Review Senior Attorney Editor Michele Host.



New Resources to Help Smooth the Path to Health Insurance Coverage for Immigrants

Last fall we blogged about how the Affordable Care Act (ACA) helps immigrants by providing new and strengthening current health insurance coverage opportunities. Unfortunately, some immigrants have encountered problems in accessing these coverage opportunities. Advocates have been working with the federal government to fix these problems. Below are some new resources that may help smooth the path for immigrants to health insurance coverage.

Lawfully present immigrants are eligible to purchase private health insurance plans in the health insurance marketplaces. This checklist and fact sheet on immigration document types can assist in preparing to complete the application. Applicants need to prove or verify their identity as part of the application process. This fact sheet from the federal government offers information for applicants in answering the identity verification questions. Also, when immigrants are completing an application on the federal marketplace, they may be asked about their immigration status. This new fact sheet from the federal government provides information on how to answer these questions. Open enrollment for 2014 coverage ends March 31, 2014. If an applicant has not enrolled in coverage by then and he or she does not qualify for a special enrollment period, then he or she generally cannot enroll in 2014 coverage until the next open enrollment period, which begins November 15, 2014. If the applicant enrolls in a plan by March 31, 2014, he or she will not have to pay any penalty.

Lawfully present immigrants may qualify for federal financial help to lower the cost of their monthly premiums and cost-sharing (e.g., co-payments, deductible, co-insurance) to help them afford a private insurance plan through the Marketplaces. Lawfully present immigrants with household income between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level (FPL) are eligible for premium tax credits; lawfully present immigrants with income between 100% and 250% FPL are eligible for the cost-sharing reduction subsidies. To qualify for this federal financial help, applicants cannot be offered affordable health insurance through their job or be eligible for Medicaid. This website (also available in Spanish) helps people find out if they qualify for the financial help.

Most lawfully present immigrants who meet Medicaid program requirements, such as income and state residency, can enroll in Medicaid after they have been in the United States for five years or more. Some groups of lawfully present immigrants (including refugees, asylees, and pregnant women and children in some states) do not have to wait five years before they may enroll in Medicaid. Immigrants will benefit greatly in states that choose to add the ACA’s new Medicaid eligibility category, which will expand that program to all adults under age 65 with household income of less than 138% of the FPL. Use of Medicaid does not affect one’s immigration status (public charge decision) unless the Medicaid use is for long-term care, such as nursing home care.

Lawfully present immigrants with household incomes of less than 100% of the FPL are also eligible for the private Marketplace coverage and can get help paying premiums and cost sharing if they are ineligible for Medicaid (either because they are not lawful permanent residents (LPRs) or because they are LPRs with less than five years of residency). For instance, if a lawfully present immigrant who has a household income of 90% FPL has been in the United States just two years, he or she should qualify for a private plan on the Marketplace and receive both premium tax credits and cost sharing reduction subsidies. If the applicant is mistakenly told by the Marketplace that he or she does not qualify, the applicant should file an appeal. If the Marketplace mistakenly informs the applicant that he or she is Medicaid eligible, the applicant could choose to apply to Medicaid and receive a Medicaid denial before attempting again to enroll in Marketplace coverage. Applicants can now report a Medicaid denial on the Marketplace application. Many organizations are working to to help individuals experiencing difficulties in enrolling eligible immigrants in ACA’s coverage, including the National Immigration Law Center (NILC), Community Catalyst’s In The Loop, and the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, to name just a few. 

Undocumented immigrants may not buy health insurance through the Marketplaces, even at full cost. However, until this is remedied, undocumented immigrants need to know that:

  • Community health centers, strengthened by ACA funding, will still accept patients regardless of immigration status.
  • Emergency rooms will continue to treat undocumented immigrants for free or at very low cost.
  • Many hospitals have charity care obligations that essentially provide free care to low-income patients, regardless of immigration status.
  • Undocumented immigrants may purchase health coverage through an employer or a spouse’s employer.
  • Undocumented immigrants may purchase private health insurance off of the Marketplace.
  • And some state-funded Medicaid programs are open to immigrants regardless of immigration status.

Undocumented immigrants also need to understand that, if they have family members who are U.S. citizens or lawfully present, these family members are required to have health insurance under the law starting in 2014, or face a penalty at tax time, unless they qualify for some exemption. (If you are undocumented, you don’t need to apply for an exemption to the penalty because this will be handled when you file your taxes in 2015.) This means that undocumented parents who have lawfully present or U.S. citizen children must ensure that their children have health insurance (through a child-only private Marketplace plan or through Medicaid, for instance). It’s important to remember that only those individuals in a family who are applying for health insurance are required to provide citizenship and immigration status. So undocumented parents applying through the Marketplace for private or Medicaid coverage for their eligible family members will not be asked for a Social Security Number for themselves (only for the applicants).

Many groups of immigrants are eligible to enroll in the Marketplace plans, and they should be encouraged to do so. The information they provide in their Marketplace applications is NOT shared with immigration authorities. Since October 2013, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has had a policy that the information provided in Marketplace application will not be the basis for carrying out immigration enforcement action. Simply put, this information will not be used for immigration enforcement purposes. 

There is no charge to individuals who receive in-person help in enrolling in Medicaid or Marketplace coverage. The ACA provides federal funding to train and certify in-person consumer assisters to walk individuals through all of their health insurance coverage options. You can find an in-person assister by going to your Marketplace’s website. These assisters cannot and will not charge individuals for this enrollment assistance, including answering questions post-enrollment. The Ms. Foundation for Women recently published a series of fact sheets in English and Spanish describing ACA health coverage options; these fact sheets include links for help in obtaining coverage and also feature information for consumer assisters who work with immigrant populations. 

The road to coverage has had a few bumps for applicants in general, and immigrant applicants have encountered more than most. We will continue to work with the Marketplace to highlight and fix these bumps so that eligible individuals and families can get the coverage they need.

Shriver Center Calls on Senator Kirk to Extend Emergency Unemployment Compensation--And You Should, Too!

On February 6 the Senate failed yet again to pass an extension of Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC), this time by one vote. Illinois’s own Senator Mark Kirk voted against the extension, despite Illinois’s 8.6% unemployment rate (third highest in the country), and polling that shows voter support for the extension. Sen. Kirk’s decisive nay vote means 230,500 Illinois residents will lose benefits if the extension isn’t reinstated by the end of the year. A ticker on the website of the House Ways and Means Committee shows that the total number of Americans missing out on benefits since they expired in December crossed 2,000,000 on Tuesday, March 4. Benefits are currently capped at 26 weeks.

In response to Sen. Kirk’s disappointing vote against extending EUC, 32 Illinois organizations sent him a letter coordinated by the Shriver Center urging him to support an extension of EUC the next time it comes to a vote. Letter co-signers later spoke with Kirk’s staff regarding the letter, and they confirmed that Sen. Kirk understands the importance of an EUC extension, especially considering Illinois’s high unemployment rate. Additionally, staff confirmed that Sen. Kirk is participating in negotiations to find an “offset” to the extension but that the “pension-smoothing” offset on the table in February was too much of a “gimmick” for him to accept. A similar “pension-smoothing” offset was used to help pay for the 2012 surface transportation reauthorization law (MAP-21). In the conversation, advocates urged Sen. Kirk to consider that the long-term unemployment rate currently stands at 2.3 percent and that Congress has never let EUC expire when the long-term unemployment rate was higher than 1.3 percent, nor had Congress ever conditioned such an extension on an offset.

In addition to the offset issue, amendments to EUC that would weaken the program and tighten eligibility requirements have begun to surface. Sen. Kirk’s staff confirmed that if an acceptable offset is found, Sen. Kirk would support the extension of EUC regardless of what happens with any amendments.

Some Democrats think that Speaker Boehner would have a difficult time holding up an extension of EUC in the House, with or without an offset.

Sen. Harry Reid has signaled that the extension of EUC may come to another vote as soon as this week. It imperative that Illinoisans speak up.  

Call Sen. Kirk’s Washington, D.C., office at: 877-363-6141 (toll-free number provided by AFSCME) and tell him to do what’s right for Illinois--extend Emergency Unemployment Compensation!

The message to Sen. Kirk is simple: Please support the extension of Emergency Unemployment Compensation the next time it comes to a vote.

Here are some additional talking points you can use:

  • Illinois’s unemployment rate is 8.6%, 30% higher than the national average of 6.6%.

  • As a result of Congress’ failure to extend EUC, 230,000 Illinoisans will have their unemployment benefits terminated in 2014.

  • The people who receive EUC are not slackers; they are victims of the slow recovery from the Great Recession. There is still only 1 job for every 3 jobseekers.

  • The long-term unemployment rate is 2.3% nationally. Congress has never before let EUC expire when long-term unemployment exceeded 1.3%.

  • Ending EUC damages the economy since jobless benefits go to people who will spend the funds quickly and generate the consumer spending we need to drive recovery, growth and job creation.


The Affordable Care Act Can Reduce Poverty, Just as Medicare Did for Older Adults in the 1960s

Home health care visitAs we continue to implement the Affordable Care Act, we should be mindful of the lessons of the War on Poverty and how the creation of programs like Medicare were effective at reducing poverty.

By opening up access to care through the desegregation of hospitals, the War on Poverty made significant improvements in measures like health care outcomes and reductions in infant mortality. However, the “opening” of hospital doors doesn’t help much if people cannot pay for their care and fear accessing care because they will not be able to afford it.

Since the 1960s, Medicare and Medicaid have gone a long way towards reducing poverty in many populations, especially among the elderly. Medicaid is a joint federal and state program that provides health insurance for adults and children who are below or just above the federal poverty line. Medicare is a federal insurance program that generally provides health insurance to people over age 65 and people with disabilities below age 65.  Recent studies have shown that both Medicare and Medicaid reduce out-of-pocket health spending, and therefore increase income available to older adults people with disabilities and families.

Most people don’t think of health care as a poverty issue, an economic justice issue, or even a civil rights issue. Yet, medical debt and the inability to pay for medical care is one of the major reasons that people in the United States file for bankruptcy. People fall into poverty because they do not have health insurance and cannot pay for medical care in the event of a catastrophic medical issue. Also, people without health insurance who cannot get preventative care or routine sick care may have a more difficult time staying on the job if they cannot afford to go to the doctor for a minor illness or to pay for maintenance medications.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is the next step in the fight to provide health care coverage and improve health care outcomes not only for individuals in poverty but also for those who are in danger of slipping into poverty. And, importantly, the opportunity to expand Medicaid presented by the ACA can take this even further by providing coverage to even more low-income Americans.

During the recession, many middle class people with pre-existing health care conditions have either lost their jobs or been in danger of losing their jobs and having their hours cut. Before January 1st (when the ACA major provisions went into effect), unemployed workers were at risk of never being insured again if they could not get private insurance or could not get another job with group health insurance. After 63 days out of work and without health insurance, a person would lose all protection against being denied for pre-existing health conditions.

The ACA will reduce the numbers of the uninsured by providing Medicaid coverage for working age adults with income under $15,000 per year; providing financial assistance for families of four with income up to $95,000 to buy insurance through state Marketplaces; and guaranteeing everyone the right to get insurance regardless of previous health problems.

However, the Medicaid expansion for working age adults was made optional for states, and many states with very high poverty rates in their populations have decided not to expand the Medicaid program. This choice has left millions of people with income under the poverty level without access to health coverage. We should remember the lessons of the Medicare program and the War on Poverty and ensure the expansion of Medicaid nationwide. Providing health care coverage to everyone is one of the most important ways that we can bring people out of poverty while improving their health and population health at the same time. 

Mass Incarceration vs. Correction: Talking Tough vs. Actually Being Tough on Crime This Election Year

GavelIt is an election year. That’s a beautiful thing. Or is it?

Election years give you and me–the people–an opportunity to assess the record of elected officials and voice our pleasure or displeasure via our vote.

Election years also come saturated with spin, devastating, partially true direct-mail campaigns, and the over-simplification of America’s most complex issues.

Given that reality, elected officials tend to talk tough on crime instead of actually being tough on crime.

Talking tough involves some combination of (1) highlighting an incident where an egregious crime took place; (2) demonizing the offender or group of possible offenders; and (3) broadly imposing harsher sentences or more prison time for all individuals who commit a similar offense.

For example, there are scores of heartbreaking stories of homicides in Chicago. The offenders may not be known, but they might all be broadly labelled as felons or gang-bangers. The tough talk would then be, “we have to make sure that criminals and gang-bangers serve more hard prison time if they are caught with a gun.”

This tough talk makes voters think a candidate will make their communities safe--and who doesn’t want to vote for someone who will make their community safer? As a result, elected officials are rewarded for “talking tough” at the polls, and more and more criminal justice policies are enacted that make it easier to lock more people up and lock them up for longer.

Conversely, candidates or elected officials who try to unpack our complex criminal justice system and present common-sense solutions that might actually reduce crime are branded as “soft on crime.”

The problem with this is that talking tough on crime doesn’t actually make our communities safer. In fact, despite the declining crime rate across the nation, decades of evidence clearly indicates that these talking-tough on crime policies have led to:

  1. The mass incarceration of millions of men and women.
  2. An unacceptable increase in crime in our communities.
  3. And billions more in wasteful spending.

This is what ‘talking tough’ on crime boils down to when you remove the spin and oversimplification. Can you imagine voting for a candidate who stands for any of the above?

Well, we have. We all have, and doing so has made us less safe, torn apart millions of families, and crippled our state and federal budgets, respectively.

Here are the facts. In the last few decades:

No matter what your political affiliation, we can all agree that these outcomes are unacceptable.

That’s why this year, and every other election year, instead of supporting candidates who simply “talk tough” on crime, let’s support candidates who are courageous enough to unpack our complex criminal justice system and actually be tough on crime.

The only way to be tough on crime is to enact policies that actually reduce crime and make our communities safer in both the short and the long term. Doing so prevents the unnecessary crippling of communities, keeps families together, improves our global competitiveness, and saves states millions.

Now doesn’t sound like a better electoral platform?

The good news is this we don’t have to wait to make this a reality. All lawmakers need do is invest the money already dedicated to failed policies in evidence-based policies that actually reduce crime instead.

In fact, according to the Urban Institute, in the last 10 years, 17 states pivoted from just talking tough on crime to actually being tough on crime by taking bipartisan, data-driven steps to do just that.

Below are the several ways in which states are actually being tough on crime:

  1. Increasing access to problem-solving courts (e.g. courts for offenders with drug abuse problems or mental illness).
  2. Making decisions based on risk assessment tools to assess who can finish their sentence on correctional supervision.
  3. Reducing sentence lengths for nonviolent crimes, changing mandatory minimum laws, and reclassifying offenses.
  4. Streamlining and expanded parole eligibility to shorten stays, increase access to needed treatment programs, and address delays in parole processing.
  5. Expanding “Good Time” incentives for prisoners who successfully complete anti-recidivism programs.
  6. Investing in residential substance abuse treatment programs.
  7. And measuring the progress of reforms over time to ensure accountability.  

These justice reinvestments can save states $4.7 billion over 10 years and make communities across the nation substantially safer by reducing recidivism.

Although it is tempting, and maybe even electorally beneficial, to talk tough on crime, we can’t afford any more talk. Let’s support candidates and elected officials who are courageous enough to actually fix problems in our criminal justice system so we can actually make our communities safer and save taxpayers millions this year.


Prying the Bars from the Schoolhouse: The U.S. Department of Education Issues Critical Guidance on School Discipline Policies

SchoolyardThe crisis of disproportionate discipline has plagued many American schools for far too long. Through a convergence of inadequate school discipline codes and training and an overreliance upon school resource officers (SROs), students of color and students with disabilities are all too often pushed out of their classrooms and schools, and many of them are pushed right into courtrooms.  

Make no mistake, despite the rhetoric from some quarters, these disproportionate discipline outcomes are not the result of “bad kids.” Those of us working on the front lines of education equity have seen scenario after scenario where different teachers in the same school with the same kids have dramatically different rates of discipline, some showing no disparities by race or for students with special needs and others registering significant disparities. Of course, the same phenomenon exists within school districts, with some schools scoring off the charts for disproportionate discipline findings and other schools serving the same neighborhoods with similar student populations showing very little or no disparities.

Offering important assistance to address this crisis, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE)’s recently released Guiding Principles: A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline lays out three guiding principles for educators and school officials reexamining school discipline policies. Moreover, the Guidance offers action steps, resources, and additional research for each principle. By providing this information, DOE hopes to “highlight ways in which states and school districts can promote academic excellence by creating safe and productive learning environments for all students, at all schools, including traditional public schools, charter schools and alternative schools.”

DOE first encourages educators and policymakers to “create positive climates and focus on prevention,” noting “schools that foster positive school climates can help engage all students in learning by preventing problem behaviors and intervening effectively to support struggling and at-risk students.” Research suggests that by creating a safe school environment educators and schools are more likely to improve student achievement, obtain higher graduation rates, decrease teacher turnover, and close achievement gaps. In creating a safe environment, DOE encourages schools to collaborate with interested stakeholders such as local mental health, child welfare, and law enforcement agencies to align resources, prevention strategies, and intervention services.

Second, DOE recommends that schools “develop clear, appropriate and consistent expectations and consequences to address disruptive student behaviors. A successful school discipline policy is one that “sets high expectations for student behavior and provides a clear, appropriate and consistent set of consequences for misbehavior.” DOE notes that “zero-tolerance discipline policies, which generally require a specific consequence for specific action regardless of circumstance, may prevent the flexibility necessary to choose appropriate and proportional consequences” and may not be the best option for a school’s discipline policy. DOE encourages schools to create policies that include proportional consequences while accounting for students who may have disabilities or developmental delays. Removing students from the classroom should be used only as a last-resort. When students do have to be removed from the classroom, schools should ensure that those students are provided with an alternative setting that allows them back into the regular classroom as soon as possible.

Finally, DOE encourages educators and policymakers to “ensure fairness, equity and continuous improvement” by continuously evaluating their discipline policies and practices. After ensuring staff training, schools should regularly evaluate their discipline policies to determine whether or not those policies are effective. Data, including students’ demographic information, should be collected on every discipline incident. Each school should develop a procedure for frequent and regular review of this data to determine whether a school’s academic, discipline, and behavior management goals are being achieved.

DOE’s welcome guidance provides a sensible roadmap for improved educational outcomes for schools and educational opportunities for all students.

Contributors: Elizabeth Cohen and Catharine Debelle.


The Secure Choice Savings Program (SB 2758): Ensuring All Illinoisans Retire in Dignity

Piggy bankDuring the State of the Union address last week, President Obama raised the profile of the nation’s looming retirement insecurity crisis with the announcement of a new starter retirement savings account: the myRA. Nationally, 38 million working-age households (45%) do not own any retirement account assets

Treasury Initiative--myRA

The myRA program is designed for savers who either do not have access to an employer-sponsored retirement savings plan or are looking to supplement a current plan. The Roth IRA product will be offered on a pilot basis through the Treasury Department. Employers will have the option to provide myRAs to employees, and employees must opt-in through an online account. On payday, employers will send a direct deposit to each participating employee’s myRa. The myRa will offer a very modest variable rate of interest (currently less than three percent) tied to the Government Securities Investment Fund in the Thrift Savings Plan rate and will be guaranteed against loss of principal by the government. There is no choice of other investment options, and participants will be required to roll over the myRA into a private market Roth IRA once they accumulate $15,000 or after 30 years. MyRAs can be used at multiple employers and are portable. Learn more at www.treasurydirect.gov/readysavegrow or (800) 553-2663.

While the myRA program is a welcome first step in acknowledging the widespread problem of unequal access to employer-based retirement tools, the President realizes that much more needs to be done to ensure universal access to retirement savings tools for all workers and for those with poor financial literacy. That is why in addition to introducing the myRA product, the President also called on Congress to act to “offer every American access to an automatic IRA on the job, so they can save at work just like everybody in this chamber can.” President Obama has consistently included in his yearly budget a program that would require employers in business for at least two years that have more than 10 employees to offer an automatic IRA option to employees.

Illinois’s Solution--The Secure Choice Savings Program

The President’s State of the Union endorsement of employer-based automatic enrollment IRAs came just as Illinois advocates and Senator Daniel Biss filed a bill for a statewide automatic retirement savings plan, the Secure Choice Savings Program (SB 2758). The program gives every worker in Illinois access to a portable retirement savings account through his or her employer and the opportunity to build a financially secure future.

The Secure Choice Savings Program is a safe, easy, and affordable way to help hardworking Illinoisans save for retirement—and it’s sorely needed. According to a report by the Illinois Asset Building Group and Woodstock Institute, 2.5 million Illinoisans and 43.8% of private sector Illinois workers do not have access to an employment-based retirement plan. As a result, across age groups, the median amount of money in retirement savings accounts is only $3,000. That means more than one-third of all Illinois households will rely on Social Security benefits, which average only $1,152 a month, for at least 90% of their retirement income. When these workers retire, they will be retiring into poverty, where they will have to choose between basic needs like paying for their prescription drugs or keeping the lights on.

Unlike the president’s myRA program, the Secure Choice Savings Program provides universal coverage and extremely simple enrollment procedures. It requires all employers who do not offer a retirement savings tools to automatically enroll their employees in the program. Studies show that automatic enrollment goes a long way toward closing the retirement security gap; employees also overwhelmingly endorse automatic enrollment procedures, particularly because they are so easy and make a daunting financial task extremely simple. With automatic enrollment, participation in 401(k)s increased from 75% to 90 or 95% of newly eligible employees. That change was highest among lower income and minority workers.

Under the Secure Choice Savings Program, employees can choose to opt-out of the program at any time, as well as choose a contribution level (default is 3%) and up to four investment options. By pooling all assets into a single fund, managed by the Illinois Treasurer and a qualified board, participants will benefit from low fees and competitive investment performance. The program allows workers to save competitively for retirement without having to make complex and time-consuming investment decisions. Learn more about the details of the Secure Choice Savings Program here. The text of SB 2758 can be found here.

As the President has said, without a universal solution to our looming retirement crisis, Illinoisans face a great and increasing risk of retiring into poverty. The Secure Choice Savings Program is the secure choice to ensure Illinoisans’ secure futures.

Help the Shriver Center and the Illinois Asset Building Group (IABG) along with the Woodstock Institute, Heartland Alliance, AARP, SEIU and many other organizations build the movement by supporting efforts to get the Secure Choice Savings Program passed! Take Action Now: Add your organization, financial institution or business to our list of supporters.

Governor Quinn Announces Several Low-Income Initiatives

Governor Pat Quinn delivered his State of the State speech on January 29, 2014. He announced several initiatives for low-income people, most of which the Shriver Center has long been a leader on. The most significant ones are:

Minimum Wage—Governor Quinn announced his support for raising the state minimum wage from its current level of $8.25 an hour to at least $10.00 this year. The Shriver Center is among the leaders of the coalition that is pushing for an increase in the minimum wage.

Earned Income Tax Credit—Governor Quinn called for the state earned income tax credit (EITC) to be doubled from its current amount10 percent of the federal EITCto 20 percent over the next five years. The Shriver Center has been a leader of the coalition that successfully advocated for the creation of the state EITC and for subsequent improvements.

Paid Sick Days—Governor Quinn announced his support for requiring employers to provide all employees with at least two paid sick days per year. Advocates applauded his support for the concept, but question whether two days is enough; similar laws in other places provide at least five days. The Shriver Center is among the leaders of the Illinois coalition working for paid sick days.

Birth to Five Initiative—Governor Quinn announced his support for three early childhood initiativesconnecting expecting mothers with prenatal care, providing every child with access to quality early learning opportunities, and ensuring parents are equipped to support their children’s preschool education by creating a healthy learning environment at home. It is unclear what additional funding will be available to support these initiatives, although this may be clarified in the Governor’s annual budget address next month. The Shriver Center has long been a leader in advocating for early childhood education and care.

Another important initiative for low-income people announced by Governor Quinn is a doubling of the number of MAP scholarships for low-income college students.

Now begins the hard work of achieving these objectives. 


State of the Union: An Agenda for Action on Poverty

Income inequality, upward mobility (or the lack of it), minimum wage and income security, job creation, child care and early childhood education, a chance to attend and complete college, access to affordable comprehensive health care, the particular challenges faced by working women (who are over half the workforce and 2/3 of the minimum wage workforce). These are themes and ideas that President Obama addressed in the domestic portions of his fifth State of the Union message Tuesday night. The President called out “upward mobility” as a uniquely American value that needs to continue to be a reality. He described current and future projects and policy directions that would support this, inviting Congress to join him and promising to do as much as he can without Congress, if necessary.

The President’s message and his ideas are a strong agenda for remedying poverty. And, as he stressed, If we remedy poverty, we build and sustain the middle class. If we do not build and sustain the middle class, then poverty deepens and widens. Importantly—all of this is not only a proper but an imperative role for government.

National leadership on these issues, backed up by policy directions and funding streams, is essential. The President laid out a strong, positive agenda for the national government’s role in solving the problems of poverty. At the Shriver Center, however, we also know that the full potential of these initiatives will become helpful reality in middle-class and low-income families and communities only after the states make the necessary implementation decisions on federal laws and launch their own compatible projects. Millions continue to be uninsured across this country because their states have decided to reject the coverages offered by the Affordable Care Act. Millions of lower paid workers will not benefit from the President’s order to increase the minimum wage in federally contracted projects, but could benefit if their states followed the President’s lead and enacted their own minimum wage improvements.

The Shriver Center’s programs are focused on building the capacity for state-level advocacy on behalf of people living in poverty, so that national initiatives such as those announced in the President’s speech are fully realized in homes and communities. Our advocacy, communications, and training programs support the professionals who work to provide people in poverty with a voice and a fair chance to favorably influence these debates in their states. For example, our own advocates were among the leaders in ensuring adoption in Illinois of the expanded health coverages offered in the Affordable Care Act, and we are helping to press for an improved state minimum wage.

The President’s agenda is a strong one that can create opportunity and improve quality of life across the economic spectrum. People concerned about addressing poverty and strengthening the middle class should embrace it and work to support national action. Congress should pass it, and the President should do everything he can to advance it in the absence of congressional action. Those of us on the ground in the states should understand that the final results in our communities will depend on us. We should prepare to take advantage of the full potential that comes from the national efforts.