Children suffer due to recession and state budget crisis

At the Voices for Illinois Children’s recent “Illinois Kids Count 2010 Symposium” at The Standard Club in Chicago, a panel discussion revolved around the topic of families in a time of economic crisis.

It was a gloomy outlook for children in the state as Illinois deals with high unemployment, poverty and enormous deficits.

Illinois Kids Count is a project of Voices for Illinois Children, an organization committed to improving the lives of children. The nationwide project is supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and uses the best available data to measure the economic, social, educational and physical well-being of children. And this year’s data are quite depressing.

The Voices for Illinois Children President Kathy Ryg started out the presentation, which attracted more than 230 guests, with information about child poverty.

“The most visible signs of the recession do not really reveal the full impact on children and families,” she said. “Children are the hidden causalities and voiceless victims of these difficult economic times.”

Poverty levels in 2008 for a family of four is an income less than $21,800 or a family of two earning less than $17,300 a year. Ryg said that based on information from previous recessions, child poverty will increase in Illinois and will continue to increase as the nation recovers. The Illinois poverty rate for 2008 was 17 percent, with 530,000 children affected.

“Projections indicate that child poverty will continue to rise, to 650,000 Illinois children,” Ryg said. “More than one in every five Illinois children will be living in poverty just two years from now.”

If that isn’t depressing enough, the Illinois Kids Count data shows that when a parent loses a job, a child is more likely to struggle in school, more likely to repeat a grade and more likely to have behavior problems.

There is also evidence that shows homelessness is on the rise. Currently there are 25,000 homeless children enrolled in Illinois schools.

The good news is there are programs in place that have proven to help these families. According to a 2009 analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, food stamps and the federal earned income tax credit are the most effective programs in lifting children above the poverty level.

Ryg said that about half of food stamp recipients in Illinois are children. In 2009 there were 1.5 million residences using food stamps, an increase of 22 percent from 2007.

Michelle Saddler, secretary of the Illinois Department of Human Services, said that food stamp requests have gone up so drastically during the recession that their timeliness processing requests has declined. But luckily, improvements are on the way.

“We’ve just recently received federal funds to hire additional people and pay workers overtime for processing food stamp applications,” Saddler explained. “We also have Web stamps and telephone stamps now, so people don’t have to go into the office anymore.”

Ryg listed off other successful programs already in place in the state, such as preschool programs, child welfare reform, health insurance coverage and child-care assistance programs. But plunging revenues and a large debt could hurt decades of progress, she warned.

“The recession and the state fiscal crisis put these investments with proven outcomes in significant jeopardy,” she said. “Some programs have already experienced substantial budget cuts and more are clearly on the horizon. It is heartbreaking that children will struggle with these effects in their lifetime.”

Rick Mattoon, senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, explained that there is not a light at the end of the tunnel, saying that because of the uniqueness of this recession, the nation will experience slower growth than normal in the upcoming years.

“There is a false sense of comfort when the economy is recovering and this makes budgeting very difficult,” Mattoon said. He added that Illinois’ biggest problem is its considerable debt. “Even if you look at significantly increasing tax revenue in the state, almost all of that revenue would have to go to paying down that debt before you look at any service expansion.”

So what can we do to keep these programs from getting slashed? Though there were not any tangible solutions discussed at the symposium, there were some ideas. Mattoon said it is the responsibility of state, federal and local governments to all work together to make sure children do not suffer from budget cuts.

“The notion of talking about children as investments is important,” he said. “The private sector and foundation sector have to really step in as well.”

John Bouman, the president of the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, said that it is not just the recession that has caused problems for these programs. It is also the fact that there was a “fragile foundation” in Illinois before the recession hit.

“Tax reform and tax restructuring has to be a part of the discussion,” Bouman said. “There is a depressingly deep crisis, but there is a way through it. We need forthright, courageous and honest leadership to do it. We can’t wait. We have to do it now.”

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