State leaders need to address human services crisis

As originally published in the Our Towns Section of the State Journal-Register on January 31, 2016.

John KelkerThis week Governor Rauner delivered his State of the State Address amid extraordinary circumstances as Illinois completes its seventh month without a state budget. While the causes of this budget impasse are debatable and deep philosophical beliefs separate our state’s leadership, it’s time for our elected officials to work together to address the worsening impact on health and human services in Illinois.

This week, my colleagues from local United Ways throughout Illinois gathered in Springfield to provide insight to legislative leaders on the overall impact of the budget impasse and highlight the long term damage to the health and human services sector.

On Tuesday afternoon, United Way of Illinois of hosted a private briefing with human service providers, government officials and legislators, including most of our local legislative leaders. The briefing provided members of the legislature an opportunity to learn more about the overall impact on the human services sector and an opportunity to ask nonprofit leadership questions.

In the meeting, United Way of Illinois provided an overview of its third statewide survey of agencies conducted since the stalemate began. The results were sobering. In terms of reduced services:

  • 85% of responding agencies statewide have cut the number of clients they serve;
  • cuts to programs serving the mentally ill and the disabled have seen the deepest cuts; and
  • cuts to programs serving seniors, children and adults seeking education or jobs have more than tripled since the first United Way of Illinois survey done in July 2015.

In addition, the survey revealed the human services sector as a whole, is at a tipping point from which it may not be able to recover. The survey showed:

  • 23% of agencies report they will struggle to operate at existing levels if the budget impasse continues through March;
  • 5 respondents reported they have closed their doors (anonymous) as a result of the budget impasse;
  • $35 million in debt to deliver program services; the average debt taken on per agency is $300,000.

In many ways, it can be difficult to grasp how much strain the budget impasse is placing on the human services sector. In the news, you may read a story about a single agency reducing services or laying off staff. We’ve certainly seen these stories in our community. However, the natural reaction is to look at these stories as isolated incidents and not a systemic problem. United Way’s objective is to demonstrate the cumulative effect the lack of a state budget is creating.

The survey demonstrated that a vast majority of human service agencies are fighting to keep their doors open in hopes of a resolution to the impasse. These agencies have reduced services, instituted furlough days, resorted to employee layoffs, and in some cases taken on large amounts of debt to continue to provide services.

Unfortunately, there is only a limited amount of debt and service reductions that agencies can take on before they are faced with eliminating programs and shuttering the doors. Our hope is that our state leadership takes action to bring relief to the human services sector before the loss of programs and jobs becomes irreversible.

You can find the full survey results from United Way of Illinois, including results specific to Central Illinois, at our website: www.springfieldunitedway.org

John Kelker is the President at United Way of Central Illinois. Learn more about the impact of the budget impasse and United Way at www.springfieldunitedway.org. Look for United Way columns weekly in Our Towns.