Chicago Tribune: Illinois women hit ‘disproportionately hard’ by record state budget impasse

By Monique Garcia and Kim Geiger

As Illinois government has lurched along for nearly a year without a formal budget, women who rely on state services have been among those suffering the most.

Frozen out of the haphazard funding system that’s emerged during the impasse are social service providers, many of them not-for-profit organizations whose largely female workforce deliver state-subsidized help for struggling mothers and their children as well as victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

“It’s hitting women and children disproportionally hard and in ways that lots of us are still trying to get a grasp on,” said Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, who chairs the human services committee. “It’s across the board. It’s really sad.”

Women make up nearly two-thirds of the recipients of a low-income college tuition grant program that’s been underfunded. Women are also the ones seeking help through programs that have lost state funding entirely, including intervention services for infants and toddlers with disabilities, home visits for teen parents, and prenatal and family care management for at-risk mothers. The funding crunch has gotten so bad that low-income women seeking breast and ovarian cancer screenings are being told to wait in a long line, unless they’re already displaying symptoms.

A bill to spend $715 million to help salvage those programs has been sitting on Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s desk for a month, the result of a rare team-up by Republican and Democratic lawmakers. The state has the money — it’s sitting in special funds that are earmarked for social services and represents about half of what the state spends on human services in a normal budget year.

But Rauner has additional priorities. He’s pushing for a six-month budget that would release the special funds for social services while also covering costs for prisons, veterans homes, road maintenance, public universities and community colleges. Plus, he wants a full-year spending plan for elementary and secondary schools.

Asked recently why he hadn’t approved the bill, Rauner cast the legislation as part of a broader strategy he says Democratic foes in the General Assembly are employing to prevent an end to the budget crisis.

“It does not have essential services in it,” Rauner said. “It is incomplete. And it will still — this is what I need you to understand — it will still create a crisis. That bill is designed to still create a government operations crisis. That’s the key distinction that you’re missing.”

Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan responded by firing off a statement accusing the governor of putting “office supplies over life-saving services.”

While the war of words rages on, service providers and their advocates say every day that goes by is causing damage to the social service network and the people it serves.

Cancer screenings

Normally, the state sets aside roughly $13 million to provide breast and ovarian cancer screenings for low-income women, a program primarily administered by local health departments or other women’s service agencies. But without a budget, the only money flowing to the program is about $6 million in federal funds.

The state is supposed to match those dollars but has yet to do so. While it’s unlikely the federal government will ask for the money back, the situation remains “a sticky wicket,” said Heather Eagleton, director of public policy and government relations at the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

That means many agencies have been forced to cut the number of hours they offer screenings and move to what’s known as a “priority list.” As a result, women who are displaying symptoms, be it a lump in the breast or abnormal bleeding, are prioritized for testing. That’s created long waiting lists, and some agencies have stopped advertising their services amid concerns they will be flooded with women they can’t help.

“It’s scary. The longer you wait, the cancer can progress to a much later stage, and in turn it becomes more difficult and more expensive to treat,” Eagleton said. “Just because you cut the program, it doesn’t mean you are going to get rid of cancer.”

Those who are diagnosed with cancer are then enrolled for treatment in the state’s Medicaid program, though Rauner has proposed cutting spending there, arguing the Affordable Care Act has expanded health care access.

Advocates argue women are still falling through the cracks.

The Metropolitan Chicago Breast Cancer Task Force, which connects women to health care providers, says it is owed more than $164,000 for data it collects on behalf of the state tracking the quality and effectiveness of mammograms. The program is aimed at ensuring testing and diagnosis is accurate, and without the funds, executive director Anne Marie Murphy said her group may not have the legal authority to collect the data at all.

“Women’s lives are being sacrificed to the budget,” said Murphy, whose agency specializes in finding women the care they need, including working with hospitals and doctors who volunteer their services to make up for the lack of funding.

“Right now, services are choppy. Depending on when and who you call, you might get in, but a lot of the time women are told they have to wait,” Murphy said.

The bill that lawmakers sent to Rauner includes about $5 million for breast and cervical cancer screenings.

Sexual assault counseling

Illinois’ network of 29 rape crisis centers are “operating at bare bones,” said Polly Poskin, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Without money to pay employees, the centers have had to lay off 16 workers while delaying hiring and furloughing some workers at centers across the state. Volunteers are chipping in to keep the 24-hour rape crisis hotlines operating, but the waiting list of people who need counseling services has grown to 175 statewide, Poskin said.

“It’s further traumatizing to victims to call and ask for assistance and to have to be on a wait list,” Poskin said. “When people suffer trauma, a critical piece to trauma is consistency in support. And when you interrupt that … you’re not only hurting the families of the individuals who will be without that income, you are devastating survivors and their need to recover as quickly as they can.”

The social services bill on Rauner’s desk, which includes about $2.76 million for sexual assault programs, “would be a godsend,” Poskin said. With it, “we could limp along until November. And without it, we’re facing the dreadful closure of some centers. It’s needed, and it’s needed now.”

Homeless youth

At The Harbour Inc., based in Park Ridge, officials are bracing for the possible closure of a program that provides housing for young mothers as they receive training on parenting, budgeting and employment. The agency usually receives about $200,000 from the state for a housing transition program, an emergency homeless shelter it operates for teens and another program for young parents.

The agency is one of many that provides housing and services for the homeless that have not been paid since July. Normally, the state sets aside roughly $40 million for such providers. But without state funds, many have dipped into reserves, laid off staff or cut services to make ends meet.

The Harbour has been able to get by because of federal dollars and unexpected donations from a trust, but it’s possible they could lose that federal money if the state doesn’t provide matching funds. Program director Kris Salyards says the housing program cannot operate without state support past the end of July.

“We are faced with making some very tough decisions,” Salyards said. “This isn’t just impacting 12 young moms who are working and paying rent, who are being a family own their own, but it also impacts about 20 little kids who will become homeless.”

Advocates for the homeless point to people like Latoya Lawrence as examples of how the state-sponsored services they provide can help to turn a person’s life around.

Before receiving help from the Harbour, the 22-year-old Lawrence and her now 4-year-old son Cleo were sleeping in her cousin’s living room. She struggled to afford rent while working as an in-home nurse and worried she would never be able to provide her son “a place we could call our own.”

Now nearing the end of her 18 months in the transitional housing program, Lawrence works as a pharmacy tech representative at CVS/Caremark and plans to begin a licensed practical nurse program this fall. The housing assistance initially allowed her to live rent free, giving her flexibility to work and take classes, along with training on budgeting and other life skills. She can now afford housing and will soon strike out on her own.

“It helped me and a lot of other people that I do know that were in the program, take the chance to actually experience life, and the obstacles that come our way,” said Lawrence, of Evanston. “It gives us a chance to get ahead in life.”

Women workers

For women, the budget impasse hurts two ways. Not only are the services that some women rely on getting cut, but women make up the majority of the home health care and social service agency workforce funded by the state.

The situation has led one major union critical of Rauner to declare he’s instigated “a war on women.”

According to figures from SEIU Healthcare Illinois, there are roughly 20,000 home child-care workers whose clients rely on state subsidies to pay for their day care services. That’s down from 25,000 a year earlier, which the union chalks up to program restrictions Rauner has put in place to control costs. Roughly 95 percent of those child care workers are women, and nearly 64 percent of those workers live on the edge of poverty, earning less than $14,999 a year.

Additionally, SEIU spokeswoman Brynn Seibert estimated that Rauner’s cuts to child care have pushed as many as 55,000 children out of the program, which she said could force thousands of parents to leave the workforce as a result.

That breakdown is similar for home care workers who help the elderly and disabled, with the majority of the workforce being female, poor and non-white.

“The bottom line is that they need to pass a budget that raises taxes because otherwise there is no hope of funding all of these services,” said David Lloyd, director of the fiscal policy center for Voices for Illinois Children, a nonprofit child advocacy group. “Gov. Rauner has said it. The Democratic leaders have said it. Everyone knows what needs to be done, they are just unwilling to do it. That’s the most frustrating part about this.”

Higher education

The uncertainty over higher education funding looms especially large for women. Caught in the middle is a state scholarship grant for low-income students known as the Monetary Award Program. According to the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, which oversees the program, roughly 80,000 of the 128,000 students who received the grants last year were women.

Kayla Gubov is among the students who has found it difficult to plan college because of the budget impasse. She was several months into what was supposed to be four years at Bradley University in Peoria when she decided to take a break and head home, saddened to be so far away from family in Skokie and overwhelmed by mounting costs.

After taking time to regroup, she enrolled at nearby Oakton Community College. This spring, she earned her associate degree, helped along in part by a MAP grant. Most schools had to pick up the cost of the scholarships during much of the budget impasse. While some funding was finally released in April, it was only enough for one semester, and it’s unclear if schools will be able to afford the extra expense if there’s not a full budget come this fall.

Now looking to complete her bachelor’s degree, Gubov said she’s planning to head out of state, where universities can offer more competitive and stable financial aid.

“It’s discouraging. I am lucky that I got into a school outside of Illinois, but that was never in my original plan, especially considering that just a three-hour drive was pretty far for me,” Gubov said. “I realize now how much people’s futures are really in the politicians’ hands, and I just hope they see how incredibly important this is.”