Ends and Means: Report on Children Offers Illinois a Ray of Sunshine
Is the glass half full or half empty? In Illinois these days, the optimist might be tempted to say that while the glass is still half full, it's also leaking its noisome contents through that crack down its side.
The state's governor is up to his hairdo in allegations of illegal pay-to play politics and endemic hiring fraud. Legislative leaders seem more estranged than warring factions in the Mideast. The state can't pay its health care bills on time for lack of cash, and adding insult to injury, takes months to tell providers why they're being stiffed. The state's infrastructure crumbles while millions of dollars of federal highway aid remain untapped. Uprooting more than 100 state jobs from the capital city and shipping them to southern Illinois is touted as economic development.
And almost three out of every four Illinois voters (71 percent) think the state is on the wrong track, and a plurality, 45 percent, want Gov. Rod Blagojevich booted out of office, compared with 35 percent opposed and 18 percent undecided, according to a recent survey.
Against this sorry backdrop, the latest Illinois Kids Count report offers a welcome ray of sunshine. Its spirit-lifting conclusion: Illinois has made significant advancements in the health and well-being of its youngest citizens, so that children today are much better off than their counterparts a generation ago.
Prepared by Voices for Illinois Children, a leading children's advocacy group, the 2008 edition of the annual report measures changes in five key areas, including health and development, education, family economic security, children and youth at risk and demographics.
“Children's well-being has improved significantly on virtually every measure” over the last 20 years, says Jerry Stermer, Voices president. “This compares with a generation ago when research showed that Illinois kids ranked in the bottom 20 percent of virtually every national study of health, development, economic security and state funding for children.”
Stermer cites three areas in particular in which the state has made great strides:
• The dramatic drop in the number of children coming into state care, to roughly 17,000 at present compared with a record high of more than 50,000 a decade ago, the highest in the nation based on population.
The decline was achieved largely through reforms designed to encourage adoption and provide subsidized guardianships, often with a child's extended family.
“Kids by all estimates are better off in more stable situations,” says Stermer, who credits cooperation among state government, private child welfare groups, schools, community agencies and the court system for the gains.
• Expansion of early childhood education so that some 90,000 youngsters are now enrolled in public preschool programs,12 times as many as were enrolled 20 years ago. Moreover, two years ago, Illinois became the first state to offer preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds.
The decision to increase preschool opportunities reflected an awareness that “success in the education experience for kids even more profoundly depends on what happens in their first five years than we ever realized before,” Stermer says.
• Widespread availability of subsidized child care for parents leaving welfare for the workforce, which has resulted in some 200,000 children being served, more than double the number in 1997, shortly after federal welfare reform was enacted.
State legislators and policymakers understood that for welfare reform to work, basics such as child care assistance were needed, Stermer says. “We did not walk away as families moved from welfare to work.”
For all the progress, much remains to be done, the report notes. Unemployment and poverty rates are increasing in Illinois, the proportion of children without health insurance remains the highest in the Midwest, despite enactment of the All Kids program, and mental health services for children are woefully inadequate.
Moreover, huge funding disparities persist among public school districts, largely because the state relies too heavily on local property taxes to finance education.
Stermer would add another, perhaps surprising, category to the to-do list for improving children's future well-being: enactment of a public works program.
Tucked away in the current pending legislation is a $30 million allocation for construction of early childhood education facilities to address the “profound mismatch” between where kids live and where preschool programs are offered. The need is greatest in suburban Chicago, he says, where an ongoing influx of Hispanic families has outstripped available preschool spots.
In addition, other construction projects aimed at reducing traffic congestion and improving mass transit would reduce the time wasted in rush hour jams or CTA “slow zones” which “takes directly away from real crucial family time between kids and their parents,” Stermer says.
Given such ongoing needs, can the gains in children's welfare of the last two decades be built upon in the current corrosive atmosphere permeating the Statehouse? After all, most of the programs the Kids Count 2008 report credits were fashioned when governors and legislative leaders were on much better terms than they are in today's combat zone environment.
The current dynamics pose an obstacle, Stermer concedes. “We have to have the leadership to take us to the next level. We can't do what needs to be done for kids and their families if the stalemate continues.”
But, he adds: “We can't give up and abandon our hopes in the future because we're stuck in a very bad place now. ... Despite the political pitfalls, we ought to believe in a better future and invest in it and not be so paralyzed by political gridlock.”
The report documents that “we have some experience of making good choices,” he adds. “Now we've got harder ones to make, but I'm confident that Illinois citizens will make the case that the next generation is worth it.”
Clearly, a man for whom the glass is almost overflowing.
For all the progress, much remains to be done, the report notes. Unemployment and poverty rates are increasing in Illinois, the proportion of children without health insurance remains the highest in the Midwest, despite enactment of the All Kids program, and mental health services for mental health services for children are woefully inadequate.
Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
Illinois Issues, June 2008