Saturday, April 9, 2011

A student's paper on Human Services budget cuts

Here is another letter to the governor from a student who is concerned about cuts to the Department of Human Services.

I am writing you in regards to your budget cuts to the human services areas. It is not right that other areas are not being as harshly impacted as the human services area. We need to keep the human services portion funded to help the thousands of people in need. Currently, our nation is not in economic standing and I understand that; however, cutting the budget in these areas is only going to cause more strain to the already struggling families. They need the extra assistance to help with their depression, anxiety, and other disorders that are becoming prevalent during the difficult time.

Without child care assistance or after school programs being funded, working parents will not have good choices for their children. These programs allow them to have somewhere safe to go that can also be educational. Unfortunately, many of these children could possibly end up on the streets getting into drugs and other criminal acts without these places to go. Also, the cut would create a huge jump in the unemployment rate in our state. Human services cover a large percentage of our job market in Illinois. The larger budget cut will cause many to lose their jobs and even force a lot of the agencies to shut down. Where are the people to go that need help?

People that have addictions to drugs and alcohol or the mentally ill are going to seek treatment in the places that are convenient, comfortable, and close to home. What are they going to do if there is no agency there for them to go to? What happens when suicide rates increase? It seems like we are just forgetting about these people. They need to feel secure somewhere so that they can stop turning to the drugs and alcohol. Along with them, what about the people who are coping with domestic violence? They are not going to travel long distances to seek treatment. Are we suggesting they continue to be abused?

With these budget cuts, we would only be harming Illinois’ economic status more than it already is. The loss of jobs would cause unemployment rates to skyrocket. Those that need the treatment will not have anywhere to go anymore causing them to continue to worsen.

I would like to ask you, why are human services being hit the hardest? A cut of $500 million has already been made to this section, so why do we need to continue taking from it? I just hope that you can reconsider these cuts and look at other areas to cut from. We really need to help those in need and try to improve our economic status rather than making it worse.

And here is some of my reaction, as I thought about this letter, and several others like it I've received from the students in this class.

I tend to favor empirical evidence, but such evidence is not always the best way to change a person’s mind about something. That said, you do reflect on the $500 billion cut coming out of Human Services.  By my estimates based on data I found at the State Comptroller’s website, I guess Human Services gets about $4.3 billion, or about 14% of the General Revenue Fund. If we need to make cuts in spending of about $5 billion, and a proportionate degree of those cuts need to come from General Revenue, then a fair cut might be $700 million from Human Services (that would be 14% of $5 billion).  I don’t know if we really need to cut $5 billion, but if we do, the $500 billion may not be enough. Bigger slices of the state budget pie include Healthcare and Family Services ($8.5 billion and 28% of General Revenue) and the State Board of Education ($6.5 billion and 21% of General Revenue.  Higher education ($3.4 billion, 11% of General Revenue) is also something that might get steeper cuts so that cuts to human services might remain below $700 million.

Here is a question for you.  If the state cuts $5 billion from the budget, including $700 million from Human Services, does the state just lose that money?  Where does it go?  One possibility is that the cuts in spending allow us to have lower taxes.  The money stays in the hands of private citizens in Illinois, instead of going to service providers and clients.

The question to ask then is, if we let people of Illinois keep $5 billion and we don’t take it away from them in taxes, will that do more good for the state’s economy than would be done if we took the money from them in taxes and spent it in things like human services, higher education, healthcare, family services, and education?  I personally think if we kept that $5 billion in private hands and didn’t cycle it through taxes and state spending we would see some slight economic improvement compared to the taxing and spending. There would be more demand for goods and services (all that money in the hands of individuals who would spend more, rather than spend on state priorities).  

But I ask myself, would this increased economic growth really make life better, and would it be widespread, or concentrated in the wealthiest households, and if only the wealthiest people in Illinois keep those dollars that would have gone to public priorities, will they actually invest that money in Illinois or spend it in Illinois, or will it flow out of the state?  Upon reflecting on these questions, I get a hunch that the quality of life and the morality of our society would erode, and I think in the long-term, we’ll be better off if we pull $5 billion out of the citizens through taxes and fees and put it into investments in education and health services, or support the most unfortunate with human services. 

Also, I don’t think money and wealth is the end toward which we should be steering.  We should be directing our social institutions such as our state government toward maximizing our happiness and increasing fairness or justice in our society. Whether we keep money in private hands or cycle it through government spending is a means toward this end, and so is economic growth. 

I mention this because your letter is very much about the harm of cutting the spending on human services. And yet, we also need to consider the “harm” of maintaining spending on human services.  Considering the alternatives will allow us to address them.  Yes, we will all suffer if we continue to pay full price for state services without collecting money to pay for these services, because to make up the deficits, we must eventually either cut services or raise taxes.  Facing this reality helps us consider which we value more, higher taxes with services maintained at their current level, or current tax levels with severe service cuts, or even lower tax levels with even more drastic cuts in services. 

Many people still think most state spending is wasted, or lost in corruption. Such people demand lower taxes and cuts to state spending.  I know intelligent people who work for the state who have told me they honestly believe 20% to 40% of state spending is wasted money, lost in corruption or stupid programs that fail to achieve anything of value. I marvel at this.  Is it really plausible that $7 billion of the General Revenue fund is lost to corruption, waste, mismanagement, and that sort of thing?  If we could target our cuts, is it plausible that we could find $1 billion in cost savings in the $4.3 billion spent in human services that would only target waste, fraud, and abuse, and this targeted cut would leave truly needed and valuable services untouched? 

Taking our university as an example, with an approximately $50 million budget, I doubt we lose more than $1 million to gross incompetence and corruption and waste in any given year (about 2%). I can think of some drastic cuts I could make and some streamlining I could do, that would, I think, give us better education quality and lower costs, but even in my fantasies of doing this I would not cut more than $1 million (2%) from our budget.  I'm intimately familiar with the university's budget, and there just isn't enough waste, fraud, abuse, stupidity, or extravagance in the campus to give us the possibility of trimming more than about 2% to 4% from the budget before we start to diminish the quality of education our students receive. 

Your letter anticipates this argument that we could somehow cut spending in human services by hundreds of millions simply by going after non-essential services and waste. You do this by focusing on the sort of misery we will actually get by cutting the $500-$700 billion proposed in the austere state budget for FY 2012. You argue against such cuts.  In essence, you are arguing for higher taxes, because you suggest that we get good value from public spending on human services (and education, and health services, and so forth), and we’re better off paying for these things, rather than cutting them, even if that means we need to raise more money from the voting, taxpaying public.

A student's letter to the governor on DHS cuts

I thought this was a reasonable letter to the governor by one of my students.  

Dear governor Quinn,
                  I am writing to you today in regards of your proposed budget cuts to the Department of Human Services.  This includes the substance abuse and treatment facilities.  This cut would send almost 80% of individuals that are in substance abuse programs now out on the street.  Also it would eliminate many jobs and then as an effect, hurt many hard working families.  Then you stated how you intend to give a 10% increase to the department of corrections in return.  This to me makes little or no sense at all.  There is actual proof that the recidivism rate is lower for individuals who go to treatment than those who go to the prison system.  Yes, there is treatment in prisons but very little bed space, and lack of counselors makes it difficult to really make it effective.  Also the price to house an inmate yearlong in prison is almost 27,000 dollars!  It cost between 5,000 and 10,000 to send someone to treatment.  Addiction is a disease and you have to treat the individual, not punish him.  In Sangamon County where I am from we just started a drug court system, and cutting the Department of Human Services—specifically the drug and alcohol programs—would really hurt the drug court.  These drug courts help individuals start a new life with intense probation, mandatory drug testing, and specific guidelines like getting a job or taking classes to improve the person’s education.  This is also proven to work better than prison, if you look at the recidivism rates from the Department of Justice.  One other issue of cutting this part of the budget is that this means the state would stop funding non-Medicaid addiction treatment and prevention.  This announcement by your office has already started many treatment programs to stop taking in clients from the courts or the streets.  This then has left many clients stuck or out of a place to seek help.  To me this is just wrong.
                  I am mainly asking you to support HB-106, which is a resolution signed by nearly two dozen representatives, that opposes the funding cuts to non-Medicaid addiction treatment and prevention.  Stop the cuts to this part of the budget and look at the consequences if you go through with these cuts.  Almost 5,000 people will lose their jobs, over 50,000 clients will be asked to leave the facilities in which they are currently in, and over 229,000 youth will lose prevention services.  Also 80% of clients are not eligible for Medicaid funding for their treatment, causing many people that are seeking help with their addiction to not receive it.  This proposed budget cut to these services may be life or death for many individuals and is just not right to do or ethical. Please stop and really take a look at what this will do.
                  I understand that with the current Democratic leadership in the House and stiff Republican opposition it would be difficult for you to raise revenue through, for example, broadening the sales tax. Thus, you do need to make cuts. The Department of Human Services gets about 14% of the General Revenue Fund, and it would be fair if the cuts to that department were close to 14%, not the 50% or more cuts you have proposed to substance abuse treatment and prevention. For ethical, practical, and long-term financial reasons it makes more sense to maintain substance abuse and prevention funding and make cuts elsewhere, almost anywhere else. 

A student endorses the plan to end homelessness

The letter below was written by a student who was impressed by a recent report by the Interagency Council on Homelessness on how we could prevent and end homelessness. 

I am a social work student at the University of Illinois at Springfield. I care about the welfare of everyone, especially the homeless. In Springfield alone, there are more than 300 people that are living in shelters or on the streets on any given day, not including the homeless people that are staying with friends and family. I am writing to you because I support the plan to end homelessness in Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness (2011). As part of this plan, $83 million have been distributed to homeless programs in Illinois to help prevent and end homelessness. According to the Interagency Agency on Homelessness (2011), this program intends to focus on five area of action: “Increasing leadership, collaboration, and civic engagement, increase access to stable and affordable housing, increase economic security, improve health and stability, and retool the homeless response system”.
Our civilization has failed to prevent or end homelessness, and if we are to ever achieve a victory in this, we will need the support and direction of well-informed and sincerely committed leaders. It is almost impossible for one agency alone to overcome the obstacles associated with homelessness; therefore various leaders from social service agencies and political parties need to collaborate to accomplish this tremendous goal.  It is my hope that these leadership positions are filled with individuals based on their integrity and passion to rid homelessness, instead of their political affiliations.
Affordable housing, which is configured so that a person should only be paying 30% of their salary for their housing and utility needs, is hard to find considering the amount of people that work full-time for minimum wage. In the United States, 44% of households are paying over this affordability amount for their housing. Commitment to programs that provide affordable housing will help stop the cycle of homelessness.
 Improving economic security, health, and stability are also essential components that may reduce or prevent homelessness. Increased employment opportunities may provide individuals with the income they need to improve their well-being and their ability to move beyond being homeless. We need increased employment opportunities to give those able and willing a chance to earn enough to pay for their housing, and if the private sector doesn’t provide these opportunities, we ought to focus some government spending on creating such jobs, either through direct government employment (as was done by agencies such as the Civilian Conservation Corps) or by federal spending targeted at helping private agencies and companies hire more people to get important work done.
Increased healthcare and social support programs will offer vulnerable individuals the support they need to overcome the obstacles that could lead to homelessness. Approximately 25% of individuals who are homeless have a mental disorder. Persons who struggle with mental illness are more likely to become homeless, and persons who are mentally well and then become homeless are more likely to develop mental illness in response to their homeless state. In either case, improved availability, affordability, and effectiveness of community mental health and public health services, which are currently shamefully underfunded, would decrease homelessness. War veterans, who may have post-traumatic stress disorder, and survivors of abuse could potentially become homeless because they cannot cope with their mental illnesses.
The final part of this plan is increasing the response to homelessness. If the homelessness response is transformed into a rapid response, then people are more likely to receive assistance faster. Also if the assistance is obtained earlier on, then the individuals will be able to recover from homelessness sooner. Furthermore, they may not have to suffer as much with the feelings of insecurity and the loss of their home.
I’m suggesting that we have a set of housing units ready to be used as people near a point of becoming homeless.  Just as there are emergency rooms where persons with medical emergencies go to seek urgent care, there could be “security housing” were persons newly homeless could go immediately to begin living in a safe and satisfactory environment after losing their housing, and thus never become homeless on the streets or in shelters. Or, even more ideal, there would be a program to help people stay in their current home when they reach a point of being very near eviction. For example, for persons living in homes where rents or mortgages are below some set threshold, it might be most efficient to simply pay the rent or mortgage for the household, rather than allowing them to become homeless.
Senator Kirk, I encourage you to please support Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness. As a social work student, I have become more aware of the needs facing the homeless and see this as an opportunity to gain a voice in show of support for those who are suffering or on the brink of homelessness. Programs and initiatives that provide hope for those in need give me pride in what my country is doing. I want to thank you for your time and consideration in regards to my views and concerns about homelessness.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Illinois General Revenue Spending in Fiscal Year 2011

I was just looking at the expenses report from the Illinois Comptroller, and I made this pie chart to show some projections of where the state's general revenue fund money is being spent in FY 2011.

An appeal to the governor from a student

A student in my class wrote this letter to our governor: 

Dear Governor Quinn

I’m writing to ask you to change your mind about making cuts of up to five hundred million dollars in the area of human services. Now, I understand that the state is in debt and cuts have to be made, but why must the majority of the cuts be in human services? If the cuts were more evenly distributed among all areas then maybe such a devastating blow won’t be dealt to human services
By cutting funds to human services there are greater strains to individuals, children, families and communities at a time when they are already struggling and need help. Too many cuts can lead to a dismantling of the security net of treatment for Illinois citizens with mental illness and developmental disabilities, people caught in the trap of addiction to drugs and alcohol, and persons in need of domestic violence services. These cuts will add to the loss of family job supports, which includes child care assistance, day care programs, and after school programs, that help to support working parents and also are a benefit to the children involved. Another important factor is a loss of jobs. The human service sector is a major employer in the state of Illinois. And unpaid bills and budget cuts have caused lay-offs or have shut down agencies. Doesn’t it make more sense to help people before they’re past the point of help, and end up committing crimes to support their families or continue on with their addictions? By having these services available, we can help people to better themselves and their lives and this could lead to a greater future for Illinois. 
In closing, just remember how much this will impact our most vulnerable populations in Illinois. How would you feel if you or someone you know needed one of these services and couldn’t receive them because they no longer exist, or you were turned away because they have reached the maximum limit possible. Imagine being scared and alone with no one and nowhere to turn to for help. Now keep this feeling in your mind because this is how many Illinois citizens will feel for many years to come if the majority of budget cuts fall onto human services.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A student urges their State Rep to support House Bill 106

Here is an excerpted portion of a letter drafted by a student for sending to their representative in the Illinois General Assembly.  I've included some of my comments after the letter.

I am here to tell to you about the House Bill 0106. This bill is trying to save programs that help substance abusers who are not able to get Medicaid. I believe that it is a good idea to pass this bill. If you end up cutting the funding for these programs, you will end up sending these substance abusers back to homes that are not safe places for them to get clean. Without the programs, they do not have a place that is acceptable for them to get the help they need, and they will begin to turn back to their old ways and use, which is putting others in harm’s way. This could eventually send these users into our neighborhoods, to break into our houses, and steal our things to get what they need. As I see it, by cutting these programs not only are we influencing them to continuing doing the things they are doing by saying they are not important enough to keep their programs, but this also is allowing them to have more opportunities to raise the crime until they get the things they need.

Not only will drastically cutting drug treatment programs increase the number of crimes committed, it will also increase the amount of money we pay out, because as stated in HB-0106, it only takes about $4,500 dollars to put a person through treatment, but it takes almost $22,000 dollars to put the same person in jail. So, just think how much that number is going to sky-rocket if we drop the programs that are trying to keep the people healthy and trying to prevent the crimes from occurring. 

Not only is this causing problems for the people with substance abuse problems, but it also creates a problem for the people who have a job in this field to help the people with substance abuse problems. In cutting these programs, it further increases the hardship our state is having in finding jobs for everyone. This cut puts over 5,000 people out of jobs. This is something that is going to further increase the problem with people receiving unemployment. So, in cutting these substance abuse programs our state is not only hurting the people we are suppose to help, but we are also hurting the community that we live in. The more programs we cut the more jobs we lose, and the more jobs we lose, the more people begin to depend on unemployment, which then presents us with the worsening problem of how do we begin to help both the newly unemployed human services worker and the people who formerly received human services. House Bill 106 restores the funding to drug treatment programs, and will help us avoid these problems.  I want you to support it.

The comparison of costs for treatment versus costs for incarceration is an important point to make. There is a counter argument. Say it costs $5,000 per year to treat persons with substance abuse and $25,000 per year to incarcerate them. If you cut services to 100 persons (and save $500,000), will 20 of those persons go on to commit crimes, get caught, and serve jail time? If more than 20 do so, you’ve got a good economic case. If in fact only 10 are likely to commit such crimes, then the cost argument may not be accurate, at least if you limit it to the cost of jail versus the cost of treatment. What percentage of persons with a substance abuse problem who are in treatment would commit a crime and receive a prison sentence for it if they ceased receiving their addiction services? I don’t know. I suspect there are neither significant long-term savings or cost increases from cutting treatment services, in terms of prison costs versus treatment costs. But I think there are huge economic gains from treatment services if we look beyond the mere criminal justice savings. I think the real economic argument that justifies making no cuts whatsoever to drug and alcohol addiction treatment is that treatment works well enough in a high enough percentage of cases to justify itself in terms of years of productive life saved and reductions in costs associated with addictions.

Let’s say that half of the people receiving substance abuse treatment make long-term recoveries, and without treatment only about 20% would do so. That means about 30% of those receiving treatment receive a huge benefit in terms of quality of life. But also, this means that 30% will go on to live and work as productive people, earning incomes, paying taxes, taking adequate care of their children, creating demand for goods and services they otherwise wouldn’t. That is probably a savings of millions of dollars in terms of the gain to society for each person in that 30% who get a long-term benefit. There would be cost reductions in unemployment benefits and many other forms of welfare expense. There would be reductions in the costs of child welfare. There would be increases in tax revenue.

And even without the economic argument, there is a moral argument, and you can certainly make a moral argument when you are communicating with a politician. Even if drug and alcohol treatment was expensive and inefficient, we still might want to maintain spending on it because we as a society want to try to salvage the lives of persons who have become addicted.

There is also this interesting point about increased costs to the state of any spending cuts that result in persons losing their livelihood. Unfortunately, that argument will be made no matter where the cuts to the state budget occur. If the cuts aren’t made in human services, they will be made in schools, in law enforcement, in fire protection, in parks districts, in libraries, in hospitals, and in construction and maintenance labor forces.