April Brings a Fresh Start: Expungement of Criminal Records on the Clearinghouse Community

Clearance ProjectSeventy million American adults have an arrest or conviction record. The resulting economic impact to families and communities is devastating. A person with a criminal record faces barriers to securing employment, stable housing, and higher education—essential ingredients for a chance at a better future.

That’s why in April on the Clearinghouse Community we focused on how to represent clients with criminal records.

Our Clearinghouse Article for April, Expungement: A Gateway to Work, looks at how expunging a person’s criminal record—that is, ameliorating the record to the legal extent possible—can help clients find steady employment. The author of the article, Peggy Stevenson, directs the Record Clearance Project at San José State University. In her article, she describes the work of the Record Clearance Project and outlines some practice models for delivering expungement assistance.

I had the opportunity to talk with Peggy and one of her students, Rochelle Rotea, about the Record Clearance Project and how its expungement work affects not only the clients but also the undergraduates who are trained to represent them. The recording of our half-hour conversation is available to view on the Clearinghouse Community.

Sometimes even after a criminal case has been expunged from a person's record, commercial background screeners report that case to a potential employer. Our April advocacy story, Preventing Background Screeners from Reporting Expunged Criminal Cases, written by Sharon Dietrich of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, lays out the problem and describes recent litigation under the Fair Credit Reporting Act to stop the practice.  

Our monthly interview to introduce an advocate to the community had a criminal-records focus, too. April’s interviewee was Todd Belcore, the Shriver Center’s own Community Justice Lead Attorney. Todd told us about his legal practice and one of the clients he assisted to clear his criminal record and pursue his chosen career.

The effect of criminal records on families and communities is not new ground for the Shriver Center’s publications. In fact, last year we compiled a featured collection of articles from the past few years of Clearinghouse Review: Journal of Poverty Law and Policy that looked at criminal records. And in February of this year, the Shriver Center published a report by Marie Claire Tran-Leung, When Discretion Means Denial: A National Perspective on Criminal Records Barriers to Federally Subsidized Housing.

The attention to how criminal records harm the economic well-being of families and entire communities could not come at a better time. Unlikely alliances—such as the Center for American Progress and Koch Industries and Sens. Cory Booker and Rand Paul—have formed in the past year under a mutual understanding that the criminal justice system needs serious reform. As the national movement grows to repair the criminal justice system and the millions of people hampered by arrest and conviction records, legal services and equal justice advocates can use the remedies available—such as expungement—to give their clients a leg up in the meantime.

Spring Legislative Session Update

It’s the midpoint of Illinois Governor Rauner’s first legislative session, and the Shriver Center is hard at work in Springfield. Shriver Center advocates are pursuing legislation that will advance the interests of low- and middle-income Illinoisans. Amidst budget cuts to key programs, our advocates work to maintain and expand access to these programs, preserve and defend housing and employment opportunities, and forestall measures that would inhibit progress the state has made.

Below is an update on some of the legislative initiatives the Shriver Center is pursuing. Please join us in supporting the passage of these bills.

Community Justice

Lifetime bar bill. HB 494 removes lifetime bars to employment in schools for individuals with old drug, prostitution, and public indecency convictions so schools have the freedom to hire applicants with old convictions if the school deems it appropriate. The bill passed out of the Elementary & Secondary Education: School Curriculum and Policies Committee with an amendment that includes special provisions for certain narcotics offenses. It is now on the House floor waiting for a vote.

Admonishment bill. HB 2569 updates the admonishment instructions given to defendants so that defendants are properly educated on the consequences of pleading guilty to a crime. Specifically, the bill requires that defendants be informed that a conviction will impact their ability to retain or obtain housing in the public or private market; acquire loans for educational or other purposes; enroll in certain degree programs; retain or obtain employment; retain or obtain an occupational or driver's license; possess a firearm; and retain or obtain custody of a child. The bill passed out of the House unanimously and is now in the Senate awaiting committee assignment with Senator Terry Link as Chief Sponsor. 

Sealing of convictions. HB 3149 allows people who earn a vocational certification, GED, high school diploma, or some other degree to petition to have their eligible convictions sealed prior to the statutorily required four-year waiting period. The bill passed unanimously out of the Judiciary-Criminal Committee and passed out of the House with an overwhelming majority. The bill does have strong bipartisan support, and advocates are optimistic about its passage.

Health care background check. HB 3212 removes lifetime bars in the health care sector by amending the Health Care Workers Background Check Act. It replaces language prohibiting a health care employer from hiring, employing, or retaining any individual in a position with duties involving direct care for clients if the individual is convicted of committing specified offenses with language providing these employers with more discretion in hiring. The bill failed to be voted on by the Health Care Licenses Committee prior to the March deadline, and it has now been re-referred to the Rules Committee. 

Fair Sentencing Act. HB 3322 allows people to petition the courts to be resentenced if the penalty for the offense they were convicted of is modified by the Illinois General Assembly in some way so that their sentence will be consistent with what is current law. The bill passed out of the Judiciary-Criminal Committee with a close vote of 9 for and 6 against. It is now on the House floor awaiting a vote from the full chamber. 

Certificate of Good Conduct. HB 3475 expands eligibility for Certificates of Good Conduct to include people who have committed non-sex-related forcible felonies. This allows people who have made grave mistakes to have at least one avenue beyond clemency to demonstrate they have turned their lives around so they can better care for themselves and their children. The bill passed unanimously out of the Judiciary-Criminal Committee and passed out of the House with an overwhelming majority.

Sealing Criminal Records. HB 4021 shortens the waiting period to petition for sealing so people who have gone three years without committing a crime after completing their sentences have a chance to petition for sealing. The bill passed unanimously out of the Judiciary-Criminal Committee and is now on the House floor awaiting a vote from the full chamber.

Budget and Tax Justice

Ensuring adequate revenue to meet needs. The Shriver Center is a leader of the Responsible Budget Coalition (RBC), a large and diverse coalition of about 200 organizations working to secure adequate revenue to support state priorities and make smart investments. The RBC has established a profile as a leading opponent of Governor Rauner’s proposed cuts to vital services and has been working closely with Senate and House staff on hearings into the budget. The Shriver Center’s Budget and Tax Justice Unit continues to work through the 2015 session to ensure that critical programs that serve low-income people throughout the state are sustained.

Economic Justice

Defending critical public benefits. The Shriver Center, working with other advocates, successfully defeated all of the legislative proposals this session that would have decreased access to critical public benefits and/or stigmatized or dehumanized their recipients. These included bills that would have (1) mandated that all applicants for and recipients of public benefits pass a drug test, (2) required a photograph on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) EBT card recipients use to redeem their benefits, and (3) limited SNAP recipients’ food choices. 

Making working families with high living expenses eligible for SNAP benefits. SB 1847 expands eligibility for SNAP benefits to 40,000 working families in Illinois. These families would receive an average of $125 per month in SNAP benefits. SNAP benefits are 100% federally funded, and this expansion would bring $60 million into the state. SB 1847 has cleared the Senate Human Services Committee and will be taken up by the full Senate in the next two weeks.

Health Care Justice

Medicaid cuts. Shriver Center advocates along with allies across the state are working to stop the massive cuts to health care Illinois Governor Rauner proposed in his fiscal year 2016 budget (starting July 1, 2015). The governor wants to cut $1.5 billion from the Medicaid budget by eliminating care for whole classes of people, eliminating services such as adult dental, limiting access to therapies, and reducing payment rates to providers. His proposals ignore key facts about the Medicaid program; Illinois providers are among the lowest paid in the nation, and the Medicaid program's costs per beneficiary are also among the lowest in the nation. Moreover, these proposals, if enacted, would unravel progress in improving quality, outcomes, and costs made in the last several years. Shriver Center advocates work at General Assembly Appropriations hearings and through the media to inform the public about the painful impact of the proposed cuts on vulnerable people and the likelihood that, in the long run, these cuts will result in sicker people who need more expensive care.    

The Shriver Center is working with allies for the passage of
SB 1729 and HB 2731, identical bills requiring the state Medicaid agency to make available Medicaid enrollment and renewal data and data related to the quality in Medicaid managed care plans.

The Shriver Center is also working for passage of HR 253, a resolution stating that General Assembly members do not support changes to the Medicaid program that leave people without access to medically necessary care or erroneously result in eligible people being terminated from or denied Medicaid coverage.

Housing Justice

Protecting survivors of domestic violence. SB 1547, sponsored by Senator Toi Hutchinson, protects survivors of violence and persons with disabilities who need police assistance. Its passage will ensure that no more survivors of domestic violence or people with disabilities are harmed through the enforcement of flawed local ordinances. It passed unanimously out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in March and now has bipartisan support—over 20 co-sponsors in the Senate, and over 80 supporting organizations throughout the state. Because SB 1547 will require a two-thirds vote out of the Senate, it has a more difficult journey than most bills. For that reason, the ongoing efforts of both advocates and community members are critical in the coming weeks to ensure that this bill continues to move through the General Assembly and ultimately becomes law in Illinois. 

Women's Law and Policy

Granting employment protections to domestic workers. Domestic workers play a critical role in the Illinois economy, working to ensure the health and prosperity of Illinois families and freeing others to participate in the workforce. Despite this, domestic workers have historically been excluded from state law protections extended to other industries. The Shriver Center’s Women’s Law and Policy Project (WLPP), as part of the Domestic Workers’ Coalition, is advocating for the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. This legislation grants domestic workers employment protections, such as the right to the state’s minimum wage, the right to be free from sexual harassment, and the right to one day of rest in a workweek. The bill’s sponsors are Representative Elizabeth Hernandez and Senator Ira Silverstein. Please note that the current bill number is likely to change in the next few weeks. 

Increasing the state’s minimum wage. The current minimum wage in Illinois is $8.25 an hour—about $17,000 a year. Inaction at the federal and state level has allowed the minimum wage to erode over time. Had the minimum wage kept pace with inflation, it would be $10.90 today. This year, the WLPP and its allies continue to advocate for a raise in the state’s minimum wage, phased in to $11 an hour. Currently, there are bills in both the Senate and the House, but the current bill numbers are likely to change in the next few weeks.

Paid sick days for all workers. Forty-three percent of private sector workers in Illinois (over 2.5 million) have no right to a single paid sick day. Workers can be fired for missing work if they are sick or caring for their sick child or elderly parent. The WLPP is working with the Illinois Earned Sick Time Coalition to pass legislation that gives all workers in Illinois access to paid sick days. The legislation introduced in the Illinois General Assembly allows employees to earn up to seven paid sick days (or 56 hours) per year. Senator Toi Hutchinson is the Senate sponsor, and Representative Christian Mitchell is the House sponsor. Please note that the bill numbers are likely to change in the next few weeks. 

Rachel Hanley contributed significantly to this blog post. 



Thanks to the Senate for Renewing Children's Health Coverage

We applaud the U.S. Senate for passing a bill last night, 92-8, that extends funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). The vote follows passage of identical legislation in the House and demonstrates that members of Congress overwhelmingly support the CHIP program and understand it is vital to keeping kids across the country healthy. The legislation also allocates $7.2 billion in additional funding for community health centers.

When children’s health was on the line, the U.S. Senate stepped up for millions of kids. Last night’s vote demonstrates the overwhelming popularity of CHIP and support for getting kids the health care coverage they need to succeed.

CHIP has a long history of bipartisan support, providing coverage for children in families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but don’t have access to affordable health care. As a result of CHIP’s implementation, coverage rates for kids across the country are at a historic high of close to 93 percent. 

CHIP funding makes it possible for Illinois to offer children of families up to 300 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) access to affordable and comprehensive All Kids coverage. Both Illinois Senators Durbin and Kirk voted in support of this legislation. CHIP is life changer for 174,000 Illinois children. This vote demonstrates that Congress understand the impact this critical program has on millions of families and we will look to lawmakers to continue to demonstrate their support in 2017 when the program is up for renewal.


Join the Clearinghouse Community

Practical tips on how to collect wage judgments won for low-wage clients.

The guilty pleasure of a young leader in the antipoverty movement.

A model of using the Violence Against Women Act Amendments to protect tenants in developments financed by the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Program.

A live conversation about the 2014 Poverty Scorecard.

An examination of racial justice and the antipoverty movement.

What do all these things have in common? They are all examples of what is available on the Shriver Center’s new Clearinghouse Community site.

Launched at the end of March, the Clearinghouse Community gives antipoverty and equal justice advocates a steady stream of useful and interesting content about poverty law topics and the people who work on them. For decades advocates have relied on the Clearinghouse Review journal for high-quality articles about poverty law. The Clearinghouse Community has evolved from that history; it will host the same high-quality content, only now that content will be delivered faster and more frequently.

And best of all, readers no longer need a subscription to access this content—including the archive of Clearinghouse Review articles dating back to 1967. Readers simply need to register on the site at the link found in the top right corner of the screen.

The Clearinghouse Community will link readers to articlesadvocacy storiesfeatured collections of articles with editorial podcasts, and interviews. And it will offer opportunities to interact with and learn from your fellow community members through Google+ Hangouts on Airwebinars, and training programs. We plan to incorporate more interactivity into the site as we continue to develop it. For a fuller description of how the Clearinghouse Community came to be, take a look at the welcome message from Shriver Center President John Bouman.

Much of the initial content on the site has ties to another community—the venerable Community Legal Services (CLS) of Philadelphia. The first-ever Clearinghouse Article, Finishing What You Started: Collecting on Judgments for Low-Wage Workers, was written by Michael Hollander, a staff attorney at CLS. He also joined us for a live Google+ Hangout on Air to talk about his article and work. The first person profiled in 2015 in a short written interview was Rebecca Vallas, who began her legal career at CLS. And one of the authors of the site’s newest advocacy story, Domestic Violence and Good-Cause Evictions in Pennsylvania After the 2013 Violence Against Women Act Amendments, is Rachel Garland, a staff attorney in CLS’s housing unit.

We appreciate CLS’s strong work and its willingness to share that work with the national community of antipoverty and equal justice advocates. We look forward to highlighting more good work on the Clearinghouse Community site, beginning with April’s focus on criminal records and reentry.

We encourage you to join the Clearinghouse Community now. And be sure to sign up for our monthly email that will link you to all of that month’s new content. Welcome to the community!

Good News: House Votes to Extend CHIP Funding

 In an overwhelming 392-37 bipartisan votethe U.S. House of Representatives has voted to ensure children in Illinois and across the nation continue to get the quality health care coverage they need to succeed. Today’s bipartisan House vote to renew funding for the highly successful Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) will help ensure that kids from low- and moderate-income working families continue to receive the care they need to reach their full potential.

CHIP has a long history of bipartisan support, providing coverage for children in families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but don’t have access to affordable health care. As a result of CHIP’s implementation, coverage rates for kids across the country are at a historic high of close to 93 percent.

We thank the members of the Illinois delegation that voted to stand up for Illinois’s kids and support this vital program. Their actions will help make sure more than 174,000 Illinois kids keep the coverage and quality care families depend on.

As the Senate takes up legislation to renew CHIP, we strongly urge them to build on the House bill by quickly passing a four-year extension of this critical program. By ensuring funding stays intact, Congress can provide the stability families and state officials need to plan without worrying that the promises Congress made for the future of CHIP won’t be kept.

Forty-two governors of both parties called on Congress to move quickly to fully fund CHIP. Most states are planning on finalizing their budgets now, and many have already factored the amount of promised federal CHIP funding into their plans. In Illinois, this means Congress must take action to pass this legislation orIllinois will have to cut at least $454 million from its 2016 budget

The message is loud and clear – CHIP is an important lifeline for Illinois children. Congress has taken an important step today and we urge members to finalize legislation quickly to provide families and states the stability they need to plan for the next four years.

Congress Has a Key Role to Play in Fighting Poverty But Has Done Too Little

Poverty Scorecard 2014It’s been five years since the official end of the Great Recession and we are seeing some signs of economic recovery. The U.S. gross domestic product grew 2.6% in 2014, the best full year increase since 2010, while gains in the stock market and corporate profits have surpassed their pre-recession levels.

Unfortunately, this growth hasn’t benefitted the vast majority of Americans. Forty-five million Americans continue to live in poverty, and millions more are only one paycheck away from joining them. Real hourly wages fell or stagnated for workers at almost all wage levels, with women and people of color continuing to receive much lower pay than men and whites. Insufficient job growth and growing reliance on low-wage work, in combination with increased costs of living for everything from health care to housing, keep low-income Americans trapped without opportunities for upward mobility.

The good news? We can do something about this if our government adopts the right policies. Poverty is a problem with multiple dimensions and solutions, and we can attack it on many fronts. We know what policy decisions are needed to sustain the economic recovery and help low-income people achieve a better life for themselves and their families.

And we know that they work. Laws passed by Congress, and even bills that are proposed but do not become law, have a profound impact on people living in poverty, for better or for worse. Last year Congress took action on three of the nation’s most important anti-poverty initiatives—the SupplementalNutrition Assistance Program (formerly Food Stamps), which helped 46 million Americans put healthy food on their tables; the Section 8 housing program, which provided housing subsidies for 5 million Americans; and the Affordable Care Act, which reduced the number of uninsured Americans by 12 million people. We know from experience that these programs can greatly alleviate the effects of poverty, just as they have done in decades past.  

Every year, the Shriver Center documents and ranks the votes of every U.S. Senator and Representative on the most important poverty-related bills from that legislative session. This year, in consultation with a group of 20 experts on poverty-related topics, we chose the 7 votes in the Senate and the 18 votes in the House that had a significant effect on poor people. While the votes in 2014 covered a wide range of subject areas important to low-income people, the most significant poverty-related votes were in the areas of employment, health care, and housing.

In their biggest strides to reduce poverty, members of the House and Senate worked together across party lines to reauthorize two important programs, workforce development and child care, making them significantly more responsive to the needs of millions of low-income people. In the same year, however, Congress, especially the House, attempted to advance legislation attacking anti-discrimination laws, key provisions of the Affordable Care Act, immigrant youth, and consumer protections. Legislators also obstructed bills to improve equal pay for women, raise the minimum wage, extend unemployment benefits, protect workers from wage theft, and improve college accessibility.

The Poverty Scorecard grades each member of Congress based on his or her votes on these bills. As in past years, 2014’s Poverty Scorecard shows that many states with the highest poverty rates have Congressional delegations with the worst voting records on poverty-related issues.  We can—and must—do more to ensure that Congress acts to advance justice and opportunity for low-income Americans.

When it comes to fighting poverty, we know what to do. And so does Congress. Read the Poverty Scorecard, learn about the relevant bills that were proposed last year, and see how your Senators and Representative voted. If they are not living up to what you know they can do, hold them accountable. 


Congress Must Act to Extend Funding for the CHIP Program

More than 174,000 Illinois children could lose their current health coverage if Congress does not act now to extend funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).     

In Illinois, CHIP federal dollars provide significant support to the All Kids program, which gives low-income children access to comprehensive health coverage, including screening, prevention, medically necessary diagnostic and treatment services, and vision, mental health, and hearing services.  Federal CHIP dollars also help sustain All Kids’ oral health safety net, covering services such as teeth cleanings, check-ups, x-rays, and fluoride treatments.  

CHIP has also helped Illinois emerge as a national leader of children’s health coverage.  In the past five years, Illinois has received more than $60 million in bonus payments under CHIP—and Illinois is one of only nine states to receive bonus payments for five consecutive years.  Federal CHIP funding has helped bring Illinois’s children’s coverage rate up to more than 95 percent, one of the highest rates in the country.

Without continued CHIP funding, Illinois would lose access to significant federal dollars—as much as $454 million in 2016 alone—at a time when our state has never been more budget-strapped. And failing to meet children’s health needs today prevents Illinois from reaping the long-term social and economic benefits associated with children’s health coverage, including increased educational attainment and higher future earning potential.

Extending CHIP funding through 2019 would accomplish dual goals. It would limit disruptions in medical and oral health care for children currently enrolled in the CHIP-funded Illinois All Kids program. It would also provide our state with the stability it needs to effectively plan a budget. Congress needs to pass a four-year extension of CHIP funding that maintains the current elements of the program already in place.


When Discretion Means Denial Redux: How HUD Policies Continue to Deprive Housing to Persons with Criminal Records

We’ve been at this crossroads before—this is our Groundhog Day. In 2011, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Sean Donovan urged HUD-supported affordable housing providers to use their discretion in admitting persons with criminal histories to housing. But a 2012 Shriver Center report found that affordable housing providers in Illinois were essentially using this discretion to enact far-reaching criminal background check admission policies. We found rental housing admission policies that denied admission to anyone who had ever been arrested for anything in their lifetime. Other policies went so far as to impose 100-year criminal background checks on applicants. In short, HUD’s unchecked deference to housing providers for their criminal background check policies resulted in draconian, blanket-ban formulas that could run afoul of civil rights laws. Our 2012 report urged HUD to take action to limit these policies and to ensure that housing providers make individualized determinations of an individual’s criminal history based upon the seriousness of the crime, how long ago it occurred, and any evidence of rehabilitation, among other factors. Since that report, however, HUD has taken no action to change its policies or curb troubling criminal background check policies by its housing providers.

Now, almost three years later, a review of over 300 admission policies from across the country has found that these problems are not unique to Illinois.  Indeed, draconian, blanket-ban admission policies among HUD housing providers are now the norm across the nation. Essentially, nothing has changed—public housing authorities and federally subsidized project owners continue to use their discretion, granted by HUD, to deny admission to applicants for arrests, and they frequently automatically exclude applicants with any kind of criminal record.

These housing admission policies are increasingly challenged as a violation of civil rights laws, something long recognized by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regarding aggressive employment background checks. HUD must acknowledge well-documented evidence of racial bias within the criminal justice system that results in racial minorities having disproportionate contact with that system. Because HUD is bound by civil rights laws it can no longer ignore the draconian policies it has essentially sanctioned. HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity should issue guidance, similar the EEOC’s, making clear to housing providers that some of these housing-related policies violate civil rights laws and can be considered a proxy for discrimination according to race. Current HUD Secretary Julian Castro should also go beyond what his predecessor did and ban the use of arrest records; ban lifetime or blanket bans; and obligate housing providers to make individualized determinations based on the seriousness of the crime, the number of years passed since the offense was committed, and any evidence of rehabilitation.

We’ve said this all before however. Now it’s time to start listening. 


Illinois's Business Establishment Agrees: Illinois Must Raise Revenue, Stabilize Spending

The Civic Federation, a venerable pillar of Illinois’s business establishment, has for many decades championed the need for fiscal responsibility, including restraints on state spending and revenues to assure a stable business climate. On February 12, 2015, the Institute for Illinois’ Fiscal Sustainability at the Civic Federation released its State of Illinois FY16 Budget Roadmap. The Budget Roadmap consists of a 5-year plan that would achieve a balanced budget each year and eliminate Illinois’s $6.4 billion backlog of unpaid bills.

The Civic Federation’s Budget Roadmap would accomplish these goals and bring our state fiscal stability and a strong environment for business investment by limiting annual state spending increases to the 2% current rate of inflation and increasing annual state revenues by various means.

The Budget Roadmap makes these key findings:

  • Balancing the state budget with spending cuts alone would require discretionary spending to be cut by 25% and “could involve the elimination of large portions of government services widely regarded as essential.”
  • General Funds expenditures not related to pensions increased by only $133 million from FY 2008 to FY 2014, an increase of less than one half of 1%, while the Consumer Price Index increased by 10% during that same period.

The Roadmap makes the following major recommendations for the next five years:

  • Limit future state spending to 2% annual increases, the projected rate of inflation.
  • Retroactively increase the personal income tax rate from 3.75% to 4.25% with it eventually becoming permanently set at 4%.
  • Broaden the sales tax to include services.
  • Tax the retirement earnings of individuals with non-Social Security earnings over $50,000 (Illinois is one of only three states that does not tax retirement earnings).
  • Temporarily increase the sales tax on food and non-prescription medicine to 6.25% (SNAP [Food Stamps] recipients do not pay sales tax on food purchased with SNAP benefits).
  • Ameliorate some of the impact of these tax revenue measures by increasing the state earned income tax credit for low-wage workers by 50%.
  • Explore ways to decrease the cost of providing health insurance to state employees and retirees (options limited by court decisions).

While further analysis is needed to determine the exact effect of this plan on low-income people, we are encouraged that the Civic Federation has recognized the need to avoid harming vulnerable people.

Several important conclusions flow from the Budget Roadmap’s findings and recommendations:

  • Governor Rauner’s claim that the current level of state spending is not “sustainable” is false.
  • Governor Rauner’s assertion that the way to achieve prosperity is to lower taxes and provide more capital to wealthy “job creators” is without merit.
  • Our current fiscal situation does not justify cutting state spending for important priorities that matter for quality of life and business climate, or programs that serve our most vulnerable fellow residents, including the developmentally disabled, the mentally ill, people with disabilities, the elderly, the homeless, and needy children. Such cuts are unnecessary and cruel.

The Civic Federation’s Budget Roadmap will be a key measuring stick for the proposed FY 2016 budget that Governor Rauner will announce on February 18.


What I Learned About the Unfinished Struggle for Racial Justice from Michelle Alexander

Northwestern University recently concluded a 10-day celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., his enduring legacy, and his contributions to all Americans, regardless of race or ethnicity.

The keynote address at this seminal event was given by Michelle Alexander, an acclaimed civil rights lawyer, advocate, legal scholar, and Associate Professor of Law at Ohio State University. Previously, Prof. Alexander was the Director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project in Northern California.

Prof. Alexander’s extraordinary book,
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, argues that, by targeting black men through the War on Drugs and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of colorblindness. The book was highly acclaimed and became a bestseller.

I had the privilege to be among the packed audience at Northwestern’s Pick-Staiger Concert Hall for Prof. Alexander’s address. The audience was literally transported by her impassioned call to embrace with new vigor the struggle for true and equal justice for everyone, regardless of race or color.

Prof. Alexander reminded us that the goal of fairly realizing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, “Dream” is daunting given our country’s alarming rate of incarceration of racial and ethnic minorities. Between 1980 and 2000, under the guise of the “War on Drugs,” the number of people incarcerated in our nation’s prisons and jails soared from roughly 300,000 to more than 2 million. By the end of 2007, more than 7 million Americans, or one in every 31 adults, were behind bars, on probation, or on parole.

Moreover, an individual’s initial incarceration constitutes just the beginning of a life confined to the margins of society. As Prof. Alexander asserted, a criminal record, whether felony or even misdemeanor, becomes haunting and indelible and adversely affects employment, housing, welfare benefits, and even the right to vote.

Prof. Alexander’s unassailable argument is that the civil rights victories of the 1950s and 1960s have not translated into basic human rights and equal justice.

The fate of millions of people may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to reexamine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society. As clearly demonstrated by the recent and sad events of Ferguson, New York, and elsewhere, we have arrived at a "fork in the road." Prof. Alexander asserted that "the civil rights victories of the past will be meaningless if all people do not have basic rights to escape from poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and systemic injustice." It is incumbent upon all of us to better understand the nature of the struggle for equal justice in America and to do all in our power to move toward the establishment of basic human rights for all people.

The standing-room-only crowd at Northwestern’s Pick-Staiger Auditorium was captivated by Prof. Alexander and was challenged to move more strenuously forward in the pursuit of justice, especially on efforts to end mass incarceration and help individuals avoid the collateral consequences of criminal records.

If you have the opportunity to attend one of Michelle Alexander’s speeches, do so. You will certainly not be disappointed. Indeed, it will be unforgettable. I, along with many others heartily recommend her book to you, The New Jim Crow, published in 2010. While you may find it replete with sadness, you will also find it illuminating. In recent days and months, many have been asking what can I do? One answer is to really educate yourself about the issues and starting or continuing with Alexander’s work is an excellent step.

Thomas C. Kingsley, Esq. (Ret.), is a volunteer attorney at the Shriver Center.


Invest in Children's Health Today to Reap Benefits Tomorrow: Renew the Children's Health Insurance Program

Editor's Note: This blog post was coauthored by Janine H. Lewis, MPH, Executive Director of EverThrive Illinois.

Ben Franklin was right when it comes to health coverage for kids. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. New research shows that investments in children produce long-lasting returns by preparing children for success in school and life. Especially in difficult economic times, Illinois must continue to invest in children’s health insurance programs that are proven to improve health and educational outcomes for children, and even increase college attendance, and boost future income. The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) is one important and proven investment. Federal CHIP funding of the All Kids program has been successful in providing high-quality, cost- effective health insurance for hundreds of thousands of children—which has helped to bring Illinois’s children’s coverage rate up to more than 95 percent, one of the highest rates in the country. When children’s health needs are met, they are better able to learn in school, and parents have less medical debt and miss fewer days of work. By ensuring our kids have the health care they need, we can create a stronger future for Illinois.

Federal CHIP funding of the All Kids program has been successful in providing high-quality, cost- effective health insurance for hundreds of thousands of children—helping to bring Illinois’s children’s coverage rate up to more than 95 percent, one of the highest rates in the country. Unfortunately, no new CHIP funding will be available after September 2015 without congressional action. Without federal CHIP funding to support the All Kids program, Illinois may lose as much as $454 million in federal funds in 2016 alone, and thousands of Illinois households are unlikely to have an affordable, comprehensive health insurance coverage option for their children. The President recognizes CHIP’s importance and included it in his proposed budget. Now, we need to work to ensure that Congress recognizes CHIP’s importance and success and passes legislation as soon as possible to renew funding for this crucial health safety net for kids.

What is the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)? In Illinois, CHIP is a federal funding stream that strengthens the All Kids program to cover the cost of nearly 175,000 Illinois families eligible at All Kids' “higher” income levels who otherwise would lack affordable health insurance coverage. CHIP funding makes it possible for Illinois to cover children with family income up to 318% of the federal poverty level (FPL) (about $6,320/month for a family of four); CHIP also provides federal funding for Illinois to provide health insurance coverage to pregnant women and their babies—all of whom live in families with income no greater than 213% of the FPL (about $4,360/month for a family of four). For children in All Kids whose services are funded with CHIP dollars, monthly premiums range from $0-40 per child with a maximum of $80 per month for two or more children, and cost sharing for office visits ranges from $3.90 - $15 per visit. Thanks to CHIP funding, these children receive pediatrician-recommended services that children need to reach important developmental milestones, such as screening, prevention, and medically necessary diagnostic and treatment services and dental, vision, mental health, and hearing services. Any gap in funding will leave kids without critical medicines and treatments they need and also cause them to miss wellness visits that can cause small problems to balloon into lifelong issues. When children’s health needs are met, they are better able to learn in school and parents have less medical debt and miss fewer days of work.  By ensuring our kids have the health care they need, we can create a stronger future for Illinois. Continued CHIP funding will give hardworking families the peace of mind of not being one accident or illness away from financial disaster due to their kids’ unpaid medical bills.

CHIP gives Illinois the flexibility to run programs that work best for them.  CHIP allows states to experiment with different program designs that work best for their state. CHIP also allows states to earn extra state funding for simplifying their enrollment and renewal processes and for increasing enrollment of uninsured children in their Medicaid program. In the past five years Illinois has received more than $60 million in bonus payments under CHIP—and Illinois is one of only nine states to receive bonus payments for five consecutive years.

CHIP is the most effective way to cover kids at the lowest cost.  CHIP is the most effective way to cover kids at the lowest cost. In Illinois, children ages zero to eighteen comprise 57% of the overall Medicaid program enrollment but account for just 26% of the total cost. A recent study of the long-term effects of kids on Medicaid confirmed that giving kids health coverage may boost their future earnings for decades. And the taxes they pay on those higher incomes may just help pay Illinois back for some of its investment.

CHIP delivers coverage through private insurance companies. CHIP is a public-private partnership, and private partners can’t sign contracts when the funding source is in doubt. Pursuant to state statute, Illinois will enroll more than half of its Medicaid consumersincluding children—into managed care. These managed care companies rely on CHIP dollars. Renewing CHIP funding for at least another five years gives these private insurance partners and Illinois the ability to better plan their budgets.

CHIP is a proven program with a history of bipartisan support that provides kids with the health care they need to stay healthy and succeed. Governors and state legislatures are planning their state budgets now, and any uncertainty leaves their bottom line in jeopardy. Governors from 39 states—such as our neighbors in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin--have weighed in on the importance of CHIP, with Republicans and Democrats alike calling on Congress to move quickly to renew federal funding for CHIP so they can continue to provide struggling families with vital health coverage for their kids. 

Without federal action, we stand to undo nearly 20 years of progress connecting kids to the health coverage they need to develop and thrive. If CHIP funding is not renewed, Illinois may lose as much as $454 million in federal funds in 2016 alone. By renewing this proven, bipartisan program, we can protect and build on our progress for the nation’s children, help Illinois as it plans its budget, and provide Illinois’s kids with the coverage and quality care they need to reach their full potential.




The Shriver Center's 2015 Illinois Legislative Agenda

The Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law improves lives through the development of innovative and effective programs and policies that advance justice and opportunity for low-income people. Our work on the ground in Illinois informs our national work to improve policies and programs. Throughout the Illinois legislative process Shriver Center advocates stand up with and speak out on behalf of low- and middle-income individuals whose needs and concerns are too often overlooked when policy is formed. Building on our experiences in Illinois, we collaborate with colleagues in other states and other national organizations to advocate for the best anti-poverty policies and practices.

Below is a summary of the policies that the Shriver Center will advance in Illinois’ 2015 legislative session. These legislative initiatives are critical to ensuring that all people have an opportunity to secure economic and social stability. These initiatives will ensure passage of a state budget that does not disproportionately burden low- and middle-income communities; ensuring access to affordable, quality healthcare and housing for all people in the state; and establishment of a justice system that not only punishes, but also provides pathways for people who have turned their lives around to take care of themselves and their families.

The Shriver Center’s advocacy work is of critical importance, and we cannot succeed without your help. You can support our work by signing up for action alerts, reaching out to your local senators and representatives to explain why you support legislation that will improve the lives of low-and middle-income community members, and by supporting our work by making a donation. Together we can win the fight for social justice and economic opportunity in Illinois across the country.

Community Justice

The Shriver Center’s Community Justice Unit advocates for laws and policies that increase access to employment, education, health care, housing and more for men and women who have made mistakes in their past and have turned their lives around.

Shorten the waiting period before sealing petitions can be filed. Shriver Center advocates will seek to shorten the length of time that men and women must wait to petition the courts to limit who can see their old criminal record. This would allow hardworking and law-abiding men and women to be in a position take care of themselves and their families sooner.

Eliminate lifetime bars to employment. Statutory bans to employment and licensure in certain sectors of the economy (e.g., the park district, education, public health) prevent individuals with criminal records from obtaining good jobs. Shriver Center advocates will work with a coalition of advocates to replace lifetime statutory bans with a finite waiting period so that people who have turned their lives around will be able to access these crucial sectors of employment.  

Protect employers who responsibly consider applicants with records. Shriver Center advocates will work with employer groups to develop legislation that will improve the process used when considering individuals with old criminal records for employment and to provide incentives for using such a process.

Expand eligibility for certificates of good conduct. After a waiting period following incarceration, certain individuals are eligible to apply for a certificate of good conduct, which decreases the harmful impact of a criminal record. Certificates of good conduct, which are granted by the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, provide evidence that an individual has been rehabilitated for employment and other purposes. Shriver Center advocates will seek to expand eligibility for certificates of good conduct by removing more of the types of convictions that currently bar people from applying.

Advocates will also work to ensure that defendants are informed about the collateral consequences of conviction (e.g., those related to education, employment, housing, and licensure) prior to pleading. We will seek to declassify criminal offenses so that more defendants will be eligible for probation and so that judges will have more discretion to render appropriate sentences given the facts of a given case. We will also advocate for a mechanism to allow people to finish sentences early if the laws they were punished under are subsequently ruled unconstitutional or if the sentencing scheme is changed to reduce the mandatory minimum or length of the sentence.

Budget and Tax Justice

Ensure adequate revenue to meet needs. As tax and spending issues take center stage under Governor Rauner’s new administration, advocates in the Shriver Center’s Budget and Tax Justice Unit will work throughout the 2015 session to ensure that critical programs that serve low-income people throughout the state are sustained. The Shriver Center will again will take a leading role in the Responsible Budget Coalition, which seeks to obtain adequate revenue to avoid cuts to state-funded programs.

Economic Justice

The Shriver Center’s Economic Justice Unit works to ensure access to income supports, such as cash assistance and food and nutrition benefits, which provide a basic level of economic stability. We also advocate for programs that create an opportunity to get ahead, including child care assistance and low-income tax credits.

Defend critical public benefits. This session, Shriver Center advocates will continue to lead opposition to harmful bills that would decrease access to critical public benefits or stigmatize or dehumanize their recipients. These include any bills that would (1) mandate that all applicants for and recipients of public benefits pass a drug test, (2) require a photograph on the SNAP (Food Stamp) EBT card recipients use to redeem their benefits, or (3) limit SNAP recipients’ food choices.

Increase the State Earned Income Tax Credit. Illinois’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) helps make work pay by providing a refundable state tax credit to low-income wage earners. In the spring session, a bill will be filed that would double Illinois’s EITC to 20% of the federal EITC over five years, in 2% increments. The Shriver Center is also a core member of a coalition led by Voices for Illinois Children that is working on this issue.  

Health Care Justice

Improve Health Care Access. Advocates in the Shriver Center’s Health Care Justice Unit will work to continue improving health care in both public and private programs in Illinois, to continue operation of the outreach and enrollment assister program, which helps Illinois residents obtain health coverage, and to assure prompt and accurate eligibility, enrollment, and re-enrollment procedures in the state.

Housing Justice

The Shriver Center’s Housing Justice Unit works to expand housing options for low-income individuals and to ensure that tenants’ rights are honored and protected in state law and policy.

Stop municipalities from penalizing victims of violence. Municipalities throughout Illinois have enacted ordinances—often referred to as crime-free or nuisance property ordinances—that penalize residents or landlords when police are contacted regarding an incident at their property. These ordinances treat victims of crime who are reaching out for emergency assistance as nuisances, punishable by eviction. In partnership with the ACLU of Illinois, the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Housing Action Illinois, Open Communities, and the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network, Shriver Center advocates will advance a bill this session prohibiting municipalities from enacting or enforcing an ordinance that impose penalties based on calls for police service. This bill, sponsored by Senator Toi Hutchinson, will ensure that domestic violence survivors, individuals with disabilities, crime victims, and other innocent tenants are not discouraged from reaching out for help at the threat of eviction.

Women's Law and Policy

The Shriver Center’s Women’s Law and Policy Project (WLPP) promotes legal and policy solutions to improve the lives of low-income women and girls.

Grant employment protections to domestic workers. Domestic workers play a critical role in the Illinois economy, working to ensure the health and prosperity of Illinois families and freeing others to participate in the workforce. Despite the value of their work, domestic workers have historically been excluded from the state law protections extended to workers in other industries. This has led to a workforce, predominantly composed of women supporting their own families, which is isolated and vulnerable. WLPP will continue to partner with the Domestic Workers’ Coalition and reintroduce legislation that would grant domestic workers employment protections, such as the right to the state’s minimum wage, the right to be free from sexual harassment, and the right to one day of rest in a workweek. The bill’s sponsors are Representative Elizabeth Hernandez and Senator Ira Silverstein.

Increase the state’s minimum wage. The current minimum wage in Illinois is $8.25 an hour—about $17,000 a year. Inaction at the federal and state level has allowed the minimum wage to erode over time. Had the minimum wage kept pace with inflation, it would be $10.90 today. Over the last four years, Illinois has been a battleground on this issue. In November 2014, voters overwhelmingly supported a referendum in favor of raising the minimum wage to at least $10 an hour. A 2014 bill, which was supported by the Shriver Center and a coalition of workers and advocates, would have phased in an increase in the state’s minimum wage from $8.25 to $11 per hour over three years. In December, the Senate passed legislation that would have increased the minimum wage, but that also would have prevented local governments from enacting their own wage increases and would have extended tax credits to certain employers. Ultimately, even with strong public support, the state legislature failed to pass minimum wage legislation in 2014.

In 2015, the Shriver Center, in collaboration with Raise Illinois and others, will continue to advocate for a raise in the state’s minimum wage. Moreover, we will fight off state initiatives that would prevent local governments from enacting their own wage increases and that would offer tax credits to businesses that could devastate the state’s already precarious budget situation.


Remembering Dr. King - Is There a Place for Extremists?

Today, as we remember and honor one of our country’s leading exponents of activism in the fight for unity and equal opportunity, we also face ongoing divided government in Congress and in many parts of the country. These divisions have resulted in inactivity and a tedious inability to get things done—important problems remain unsolved and even routine matters prove too tough to finish. 

Dr. King had a lot to say about the need for people of good will to unify around issues that demand action, especially the interlocked issues of poverty and race.  Although his most famous accomplishments and words involved race equity and civil rights, he was killed while pursuing the essential next step: economic justice. Dr. King advocated for the government’s role in ensuring a humane safety net, a fair opportunity for upward mobility, and a voice for people in poverty – some power – to determine what the government would do on these issues.  He had shifted his focus, highlighting that racial justice could not be complete without economic justice.   

One year before his assassination, Dr. King gave a speech on poverty at Stanford University (his “other America” speech). Pursuit of economic justice had provoked backlash and hatred on the streets of Chicago and firm resistance from people who had previously supported the civil rights movement in the South. He noted:  

[W]e must see that the struggle today is much more difficult. It's more difficult today because we are struggling now for genuine equality. And it's much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good solid job.  It's much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing conditions. It is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to make genuine, quality, integrated education a reality. And so today we are struggling for something which says we demand genuine equality

In the same speech Dr. King stressed that, while the changing of hearts and minds is essential to the ultimate goal of equality, legislation—a role for government—is also required. He noted that, while you cannot force a man to love you, you can prevent him from lynching you. Laws, enforcement, and programs are needed to realize the dream of economic justice for all.

Later, while he and his allies were in the midst of launching a major effort on poverty in Washington, Dr. King went to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. In his last sermon (the famous “mountaintop” speech), he explained to the audience that the cause was urgent, and not something for religious patience:

It's all right to talk about "long white robes over yonder," in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It's all right to talk about "streets flowing with milk and honey," but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can't eat three square meals a day. It's all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God's preachers must talk about the New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee.  

Today, our legislatures seem to be under the control of extreme elements that refuse to compromise or, perhaps more accurately, refuse to participate in governing with people who do not think exactly like them. We live in an era where compromise is equated with weakness. Too often, elected officials seem to prefer no action to accomplishments that are not fully aligned with their ideas.  In the face of injustice and poverty crying out for action, our country’s progress has been held hostage by extremists of stasis.

Dr. King had things to say about extremism. Earlier in his career, he had been jailed in Birmingham for leading nonviolent disobedience to the Jim Crow laws. In a public letter, moderate “liberal” clergy had criticized him for these tactics and called them—and him—extremist. In response, Dr. King explained how he at first resisted that accusation, but then realized he should embrace it:    

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? … Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

The cause of economic justice is still urgent, and it too often is blocked by extremists of stasis. Today, as we ponder Dr. King’s legacy, we should understand the important role of government in ensuring fair opportunities for upward mobility, and we should welcome creative extremists in that just cause.  



Secure Choice Will Ensure a Secure Future for Many Workers

Secure Choice bill signingMark January 4, 2015, down as a date to remember—one of the greatest legislative wins for families and individuals facing and living in poverty became law in Illinois. Called Secure Choice, it takes what corporate America has known for years, that employees are more likely to save for retirement through a payroll deduction, and provides the same opportunity to millions of Illinois employees whose employers previously never offered such a vehicle. In turn, many more people will retire with economic dignity and not into poverty. Adding to the meager average of $15,228 a year that workers relying on social security alone would each receive, Secure Choice boosts workers’ own savings potential via a payroll deduction that, in turn, immeasurably increases their overall retirement financial health.

This is a victory for all Illinoisans. First, millions previously without access to such accounts now can utilize a payroll deduction to save for retirement. Second, on the cost front, most of the costs of administering the accounts will be funded by the pooled assets of the participants, and all Illinoisans will benefit when more of its citizens are able to fund their own retirements.  

Importantly, low-wage workers and persons of colors, who disproportionately have been without access to payroll deduction style retirement savings plans, will now have access to a retirement savings option at their jobs. These groups, who have been traditionally left out on the sidelines, or worse, targeted for predatory banking products, now will have a safe asset building tool that works, which will ultimately increase their wealth over time and help them break the cycle of poverty.

While a handful of other states--Massachusetts, Oregon, California, Maryland, and Connecticut--are at various stages of researching and implementing retirement automatic payroll deduction plans, Illinois’s Secure Choice is the most comprehensive and groundbreaking so far. Remember the words, Secure Choice. We predict that more and more states will implement similar, common sense plans.

A special note of gratitude: In our efforts to support Secure Choice, the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law was joined by many coalition partners, including AARP, the Illinois Asset Building Group, Heartland Alliance, the Woodstock Institute, and the Service Employees International Union, along with a long list of other community and small business supporters. We thank them for their tireless efforts. On behalf of the communities we represent, we also thank Illinois Senator Daniel Biss and House Representative Leader Barbara Flynn Currie for their unprecedented leadership and Governor Pat Quinn and State Treasurer-Elect Frerichs for their unwavering support of Secure Choice. 


Two Legal Aid Programs Secure Unemployment Benefits for Domestic Violence Survivors

L.S.’s abuser found her at her workplace in Georgia. She felt that she had no choice but to leave her job and escape to a domestic violence shelter with her children. Another woman, E.C., lived hundreds of miles away in Washington, D.C., but faced a similar problem. Her abuser showed up repeatedly at her workplace, and to appease him, she broke workplace rules by allowing him onto the property. She lost her job as a result.

Without the income from their jobs, L.S. and E.C.’s situations became ever more precarious. They applied for unemployment insurance benefits, but Georgia and D.C. did not approve their claims.

Both women turned to their local legal aid programs for assistance. And during the same week in June 2014, both women won their cases in their respective courts of appeals.

The attorneys for L.S. and E.C. have written about their work on these cases in our two most recent advocacy stories. Jennifer Mezey and Drake Hagner with the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia wrote about their work on E.C.’s case. Their challenge was to ensure that the courts interpreted D.C.’s unemployment coverage of people who lost their jobs “due to domestic violence” in such a way as to give full benefits to people in situations like E.C.’s. Lindsey Siegel and Kimberly Charles of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society wrote about L.S.’s case and their work to make sure Georgia’s unemployment insurance program considered escaping domestic violence to be “good cause” for leaving a job.

While the particular laws and facts of their cases differed, these advocacy stories show that L.S. and E.C.’s attorneys approached their cases in similar ways. Both used appellate advocacy for one client to benefit a broader group of people. Both secured an amicus brief from a domestic violence advocacy group to support their reading of the unemployment law at issue and how that law covered their clients’ actions.

Perhaps most importantly, both the D.C. and Atlanta attorneys built a robust record at the administrative hearing level. In both cases, a key part of that record was the testimony of a domestic violence expert who gave context to L.S. and E.C.’s actions and explained how abuse and fear affect a victim’s decision making.

Each of these advocacy stories is interesting on its own terms, but when read together, they paint a rich picture of the diligent advocacy that legal aid programs take to improve the lives of their clients and others in similar situations. Economic independence is often necessary for someone who has experienced domestic violence to escape the situation. Making unemployment insurance available to support survivors if the violence follows them to work can help them avoid having to choose between their safety and their economic well-being.