There’s a “Red Menace” Made of Ink, and We’re Drowning In It

The Chicago Tribune has published the story of a family trying to obtain services for their autistic son, who “aged out” of Illinois’ special education system when he turned 22, and was put on the State’s “Prioritization for Urgency of Need for Services” (or PUNS) list, a waitlist for disabilities services in Illinois administered by the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS). From the story:

“Nick is among nearly 20,000 people with developmental disabilities in Illinois who are on a waiting list to get into adult programs. Many of them come from families who don’t have a way to pay for home care, job coaches or other services.

Most wait an average of seven years before they are selected, despite a court order in 2011 that Illinois shrink the list and do other things to improve how it serves developmentally disabled adults. One family told the Tribune they signed up their child when he was just 5 and he still did not get a spot when he turned 22 this year…”

The story goes on to describe a lawsuit filed in 2004 to require the State to provide community-based living arrangements and services to the developmentally disabled. Again, from the story:

“While paying lip service to the value of community-based programs, defendants have made paltry efforts to reduce the state’s reliance on large institutions or to expand Illinois’ community-based programs,” the lawsuit added.

We’re all familiar with the tragic story of A.J. Freund, the little 5-year old who had been in and out of the attention of DCFS since birth. The extent to which the agency’s systemic troubles failed him and others is a story yet to be fully told.

I’ve recently been appointed to the “Task Force for Strengthening Child Welfare Workforce for Children and Families”,  established by Public Act 100-879, the purpose of which is to:

[C]reate a task force to study the compensation and workload of child welfare workers to determine the role that compensation and workload play in the recruitment and retention of child welfare workers, and to determine the role that staff turnover plays in achieving safety and timely permanency for children.

It would be an easy fix if all we were doing was paying “lip-service” to these and any number of other underfunded programs. But the real and bigger reason for this chronic underfunding is staring us directly in the face.

A story getting far less attention but which has everything to do with the 20,000 people on the PUNS list and excessive workloads at DCFS is the recent report issued by the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (COGFA) about the state of Illinois’ pensions.

The report discloses that the unfunded liability for its 5 pension funds as of June 30th, 2019 stands at $137.2 billion, up from $133.5 billion in the previous year and goes on to point out that in Fiscal Year 2020, the State is scheduled to contribute $9.223 billion out of General Revenue to fund those pensions.

Debt Payment 2020

That $9.2 billion represents 22 percent of the total amount of state spending in the current FY 2020 budget, which is scheduled to grow to $10.6 billion in 2024 and ultimately rise to over $19 billion in 2045.When over 20% (and climbing) of your total budget is going towards paying debt, it leaves much less for the ongoing functions of government. The size of our debt is a rough measure of how much money was diverted in the past to dispense the type of goodies that politicians are only too happy to give, goodies which blur and ultimately erase the lines between an encroaching State and those entities and institutions in which a free people in a healthy society really live: its civic and charitable organizations, community clubs, Little League, churches and a free economy, to name just a few.

This is money that could be used for the types of programs that would help Nick cope with life in our broader society, allow the State to more adequately fulfill its Constitutional imperative of paying for education and create a more robust and effective program of child protection. But so long as we continue to deal with this albatross around our neck, none of this will be done.

I grew up at a time when the former Soviet Union was referred to as the “Red Menace”. We now live under the threat of a new Red Menace, one made of ink. We can argue all day about where the responsibility lies and whose fault it is that we’re in this mess, but when the excesses of the past continue to increasingly crowd out our responsibilities of the present and to the future, we’re going to see more stories about people like Nick and A.J. If we don’t do something about our debt and soon, we’d better get used to seeing them.