Government, at all levels, has a critical role to play in securing justice and opportunity for people in poverty or otherwise at risk. So as Congress remains highly polarized and gridlocked, it is important to take advantage of opportunities for progress at the state level. This is where critical decisions affecting at risk populations increasingly are being made.
From afar, Illinois might not look like a shining example of a state picking up where the federal government has become incapacitated. After all, the state legislature and the governor are locked in a record-long budget impasse that is eroding the state’s social and human service infrastructure and, in the process, causing some our state’s most vulnerable citizens to suffer.
But despite the ongoing budget impasse and its devastating consequences, Illinois achieved many substantial anti-poverty victories during the most recent legislative session. This spring, the Shriver Center advocated for several bills in the Illinois General Assembly that will advance justice and improve opportunities for low-income people. When signed by the governor and enacted into law, each of these bills will help low-income individuals and families take one more step away from poverty.
Protecting Domestic Workers. Domestic workers play a critical role in the Illinois economy. They care for the elderly, clean homes, and nurture children, ensuring the health and prosperity of Illinois families and freeing others to work outside the home. Their work ultimately makes all other work possible. Despite the value of their work, domestic workers have historically been excluded from protections under laws extended to workers in other industries. This has led to a workforce, predominantly composed of women supporting their own families, that is isolated and vulnerable.
The Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, HB 1288, establishes a definition for domestic work and extends worker protections to domestic workers, including the right to the state minimum wage, to be paid for all work hours, to one day of rest per week for workers that work for one employer more than 20 hours a week, and to protection from sexual harassment on the job. This bill, which will benefit an estimated 35,000 domestic workers in Illinois, will ensure that domestic workers are treated with the dignity they deserve.
Providing a Lifeline to Victims of Human Trafficking. Victims of trafficking, torture, and other serious crimes desperately need a safe place to live, adequate food, immediate attention to their physical and mental health needs, and an opportunity to stabilize their lives as they cooperate with law enforcement, adjust their immigration status, and obtain work authorization. The current processing time for visas ranges from 5 to 16 months, leaving these immigrants vulnerable to further exploitation and harm.
The Shriver Center, in partnership with Heartland Alliance, advocated for SB 3007, which provides access to critical services for immigrant survivors of human trafficking while they await a decision on their visa applications. SB 3007 provides access to state-funded SNAP, cash assistance, and Medicaid for up to one year while the victim is preparing his or her visa or asylum application. SB 3007 has passed both houses of the legislature and awaits the Governor’s signature. The first program of its scope in the nation, this bill is expected to provide a lifeline to roughly 700 people annually.
Ensuring That Children Benefit from Child Support. Child support can be an important source of income for low-income families. However under current Illinois law, a family receiving cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program gets only $50 of a child support payment, no matter the amount the noncustodial parent actually pays. The rest of the child support payment is kept by the state and the federal government. SB 2340 will increase the amount that these families receive from child support payments paid by noncustodial parents to the maximum permitted by federal law. This will encourage on-time child support payments and let children see that both their parents are doing their best to care for them. Once signed into law, the changes will go into effect on January 1, 2017.
Helping Cash Assistance Recipients Get the Education They Need. Although education is essential to moving people out of poverty, 35.9% of TANF recipients have less than a high school education. Most TANF recipients are required to engage in work activities at least 30 hours each week. But, under current law, obtaining a high school diploma or GED certificate is classified as a non-core activity for adults over 19 years of age. SB 2906 amends the Public Aid Code to add attendance in high school and GED programs to the set of activities that count as a core work requirement activity for TANF recipients. Once signed into law, this bill will allow the Illinois Department of Human Services and TANF recipients to prioritize these important activities and ensure that more recipients complete their high school educations.
Protecting Survivors of Domestic or Sexual Violence. Employees coping with sexual or domestic violence deserve to feel secure and safe in their employment, which is vital to their economic security. The Victims’ Economic Security and Safety Act (VESSA), originally enacted into law in 2003, established employment protections for survivors and their families. HB 4036 expands VESSA protections to all employees working in Illinois. Newly covered employees may take unpaid leave to seek medical attention, domestic violence or sexual assault services, counseling, legal assistance, and other activities needed to address the violence. Employers are also prohibited from discrimination based on an employee’s status as a survivor or a family or household member of a survivor. Once signed into law, the amendment would go into effect on January 1, 2017.
Ensuring Consumers Can Make Informed Healthcare Decisions. The health care system can be confusing. Health care consumers need clear and accurate information so that they can make informed decisions about their health care. The Empowering Meaningful Choice in Medicaid Managed Care Act, HB 6213, ensures that Medicaid managed care consumers can access more up-to-date provider directories, see clear guides showing what drugs are and are not covered, compare plans by performance measures, and know who to call if they have problems getting care. HB 6213 has passed the House and Senate with unanimous support; a few amendments bringing technical changes need to be voted on before it's sent to the Governor for his signature.
Extending Health Coverage for Children. Children who have health coverage are more likely to have an ongoing relationship with a doctor, receive preventive care, early diagnosis, and treatment, and they have better health outcomes. In 2005, Illinois extended eligibility for public health insurance program to cover children from working poor families, including children who have no access to public or private insurance on the marketplace due to their immigration status. As of January 31, 2016, the Covering All Kids Health Insurance Act covered almost 41,000 children.
However, Covering All Kids was set to sunset on July 1, 2016. HB 5736, which passed both houses of the Illinois legislature, amends the law to extend coverage to October 1, 2019. This ensures that needy children will continue to have access to preventive and primary care and makes our communities healthier.
Diverting Youth from the Juvenile Justice System. Seventy percent of youth arrested in the U.S. are living with a mental illness, and 50-70% of youth in the juvenile justice system meet the criteria for a mental illness. Youths living with mental illness deserve opportunities for treatment in the community--not ineffective and costly entanglement with law enforcement and the juvenile justice system.
SB 320, the Opportunities for Youth Diversion Task Force Act, will bring policymakers, community advocacy groups, community-based service providers, health care systems, law enforcement, and juvenile justice partners together in a task force to review evidence-based best practices for diverting youth to appropriate community-based mental health services. The task force will prepare an action plan and make recommendations to the General Assembly and Governor that will increase the number of youth experiencing mental illness diverted away from the juvenile justice system.
Impasse Continues. Looming over all of that progress, however, is the ongoing state budget impasse. Thanks to Governor Rauner’s hostage taking, Illinois recently entered its second straight year without a budget—and now wears the dubious distinction of being the only state in the country without a budget for the current fiscal year.
The lack of a budget has caused widespread suffering in Illinois. The human and social service infrastructure is crumbling—staff are being laid off, programs are shutting down, and people are going without services. The impasse is effectively undermining Illinois’ ability to fight poverty, and our state is growing weaker as a result.
While the impasse has taken a devastating human toll, it has also reaffirmed an important lesson on the critical, proactive role that government must play in a functioning society. If our other victories this session demonstrate the potential for state-level government action in the fight against poverty, then the budget impasse illustrates what can happen when state government fails in that pursuit.
Shriver Center advocates, in collaboration with the Responsible Budget Coalition and other organizations, have been on the front-lines of fighting for a responsible budget that includes revenue necessary to fund vital services. We will continue that fight until the State of Illinois has a budget that demonstrates its commitment to fighting poverty and promoting prosperity.