Thursday, June 11, 2009

Hundreds rally to stop Illinois budget cuts

By Pepe Lozano

CHICAGO – Hundreds representing dozens of local community groups here rallied in front of the downtown James R. Thompson Center June 4 against the “doomsday” budget cuts that were approved by the Illinois General Assembly late last month.

If the new budget gets approved many important services for children, seniors and working families will be slashed. A minimum of 50 percent cuts to most state funded programs, including the loss of homecare workers for 40,000 seniors and persons with disabilities, and the loss of more than 100,000 jobs are all in jeopardy.

Leaders at the midday rally point out that 80,000 low-income working mothers will lose childcare. Vital community programs such as rape crisis, drug rehabilitation, and violence prevention programs are all on the chopping block. Given the current economic crisis, losing these badly needed services would be absolutely devastating, they charge.

Inside the Thompson Center Governor Pat Quinn and legislative leaders met over lunch as rally leaders testified outside carrying signs and banners, chanting, “No more cuts.”

“Our leaders have failed us and we’re facing a disaster for all of our working families,” said Christina Obregon, organizer with the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. “These cuts are going to hurt working families in need including children, senior citizens and providing summer jobs for teenagers,” she said. “It’s not fair. We have to make our failed legislative leaders feel our pain.”

Ana Sandoval with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights said, “We expect our legislators to pass policies necessary to protect our safety net, and they failed.” She continued, “This isn’t about Democrats or Republicans. It’s about people. There is no excuse.”

Katie Brown, an 83-year old leader with Action Now asked, “Why should people like me have to go to a nursing home?” She added, “If they take away my home care worker I’ll be forced to go. I could be in my own home eating what I want and taking naps when I want. Seniors should have the dignity to stay in our own homes,” said Brown.

Services for youth such as college aid, juvenile delinquency prevention and teen pregnancy prevention programs could also be lost.

Maria Degillo, 18, a Filipina youth leader with the Albany Park Neighborhood Council said when she came to the U.S. at age nine, she learned English through a state funded program.

“Those ESL classes helped me do well in this country,” she said. “What will happen to other young people if the funding for ESL classes is gone? Youth need access to these programs, and to summer jobs.” Degillo added, “Building our neighborhood starts with engaging youth, not leaving them isolated and on the streets.”

Degillo lives with her father and brother and said their monthly bills total $5,100, not including food.

“My dad is very sick and the doctor told him he needed to stop working or he could die,” she said. “I work two jobs, along with my brother so we can help pay the bills. But it’s still not enough.” Degillo said if state lawmakers pass these budget cuts, millions of families like hers will continue to suffer in a vicious cycle of poverty.

Diane Doherty is the executive director with the Illinois Hunger Coalition. She recently went on a five-day hunger strike with nine others against the budget cuts in Springfield Ill.

“Half a million kids go hungry in this state,” said Doherty. “It’s disastrous to know how many people lose their jobs here and how many people are left with no safety net whatsoever. And for Ill. lawmakers who are now making more people go hungry and more without any protections, it’s just outrageous.”

Doherty said between January and April an additional 100,000 went on food stamps throughout the state. “If this proposed budget holds up as suggested with the cuts, 40 percent who work in state funded services will see the pink slip,” she said. “We’re not going to be able to end hunger if we don’t get much needed services funded by the state.” Doherty said state lawmakers ought to put people’s needs first and stop playing politics. “The loss of human capital due to this is hard to measure.”

Ultimately there needs to be a tax increase that will not affect the unemployed or small businesses, said Doherty. The wealthy and major corporations that make record profits should have to pay them, she said.

Maria Elena Sifuentes is in the process of getting her teaching degree through the Grow Your Own Teachers program, which educates talented community members to become teachers in hard-to-staff schools. The program is expected to lose all of its funding.

“I’ve sacrificed for years to work for my degree, so that I can teach the children in my community,” said Sifuentes. “If our elected officials fail to raise more revenue, they will kill the dreams of not only the 500 of us teachers in training, but thousands of children as well. This is bad for our kids and bad for our state.”

Anne Hallett is the director with the Grow Your Own teachers program. She said 80 percent of the teacher candidates in the program are women and 85 percent are people of color.

“These are people who work full time and go to college and most of them get loans from the state,” said Hallett. “These cuts leave them high and dry.”

Hallett said programs like hers and others are too important to lose.

“But we’re going to fight to the bitter end to save them,” she said.

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