A Tale of Two Budgets: Government Investments Are Essential to Fight Poverty

It is abundantly clear that government plays an important role in ensuring the quality of life and chances for upward mobility for people in poverty. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., understood that when he launched his multiracial effort for economic justice, “The Poor People’s Campaign.” President Lyndon B. Johnson spearheaded a successful federal commitment to fighting poverty through the Great Society and the “War on Poverty.”

That role of government in fighting poverty and ensuring opportunity is heavily dependent on public budgets, those "profoundly moral" documents that detail the investments we choose to make in education, training, programs that support and enable work, retirement security, youth engagement, services for people with disabilities, and enforcement of guarantees of civil rights and equal opportunity.

White House and Illinois State CapitolToday, budget processes at the state and federal level illustrate two drastically different approaches to the public budget's role in tackling poverty.

President Obama’s proposed 2017 budget is rich with recognition of the need to address deep poverty and racial inequities and with proposals to implement solutions.

Here in Illinois, there is not only no professed intent to use the budget to address poverty, but there is no budget at all, and the lack of a state budget has eroded or completely blocked the state’s programs to address poverty and create opportunity. Most recently, the Rauner Administration has announced its intention to veto emergency funding for student aid that enables low-income, mostly minority students to be in college—a universally acknowledged way for hard-working people to be upwardly mobile and join the educated workforce that employers all say they need.

While it is good that the Governor, in his budget speech, proposed new investment in early childhood and K-12 education, this means little without revenue to support it and all the critical services that support and provide opportunity for children, their families, and communities. That is, it means little without a fully funded state budget.

As Dr. King’s economic crusade asserted, public budgets are a major part of the work to fight poverty and ensure equal opportunity. President Obama seeks a budget that recognizes that role and takes up the challenge. Governor Rauner’s current position holds the budget hostage to his non-budget policy agenda. It not only fails to recognize poverty and racial equity as a priority in the state budget, but affirmatively undermines or outright blocks the policies and programs that Illinois had in place in prior budgets to address those concerns.

Trevor Brown contributed to this blog post. 

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