Rauner's Essentials

03/24/2015 03:37 pm ET | Updated May 24, 2015

Illinois has a new Governor. It's the first Republican in some time, and Gov. Rauner didn't wait long to remind us what that meant. He slashed the budget and froze spending on anything deemed "non-essential".

So what is "essential"? Ask any ordinary citizen and that would mean food, water, clothing, and shelter. From what I know of government, we don't spend much of our taxes giving people such basic needs.

The Illinois State government, like every State in the Union, spends the majority of taxpayer funds on what I would deem, based on the definition above, non-essential programs. They fund services people could live without, including higher education, alcoholism and substance abuse programs, mental health programs, afterschool programs, and child welfare programs. Gutting these programs wouldn't necessarily cause the immediate death of anyone, or at least in any manner that could be legally attributable to the governor. I suppose Bruce Rauner would know, since his company was linked to nursing home deaths and abuse.

No one supports government waste, but how does one define a program that is essential? For me, spending a small amount of money now to save a lot of money in the future is essential. Anything less would be government mismanagement. In K-12 education we can predict with unnerving accuracy whether a child will end up being a productive citizen or in prison based on their grades, graduation, and suspension rates.

What if there were a program that made measurable and significant progress helping students to become self-sufficient, and less reliant on the government?

Teen R.E.A.C.H. at Morrill, an award-winning program, is by every definition a highly effective program.
• For the past two years 100% of students in the program have graduated.
• Over the past five years the graduation rate for the entire school has increased from 50% to 90%, largely due to the changes in the culture and climate that Teen R.E.A.C.H. has led.
• Teen R.E.A.C.H. supported implementation of restorative justice, cutting suspension rates by more than 50%.

This is contradictory to Rauner's own plans of reducing incarceration rates. If he intends to reduce prison populations without support programs, he is simply freeing criminals. It also contradicts Rauner's conservative goal of cutting government waste, because Teen R.E.A.C.H. at Morrill is extremely efficient. They receive funding for 33 students but serve 80 to 100, or two-to-three times what the government is paying for. They have an additional 100 youth who continue working with the program to gain mentorship.

The students in the program have participated in immigration marches, organized block parties, helped create a school garden and designed a new playground. The students in Teen R.E.A.C.H. are community leaders.

But programs such as these aren't deemed essential by our Governor. The State of Illinois, under his leadership, would rather cut these programs and pay for the cost of prison and unemployment years from now, kicking the can down the road, and ruining lives in the process.

There definitely needs to be changes in how Illinois is run. There are only three other states that tax fewer services, leaving 5 billion dollars of potential revenue on the table. Despite the claim Illinois has the highest tax rate, we have one of the lowest tax burdens, largely because of the many services we don't tax.

Illinois also has a flat income tax, allowing billionaires like Bruce to pay the same rate as a fast-food worker. Despite the claims we need to become more "business friendly" so that we don't lose jobs to neighboring red states like Indiana and Wisconsin, Caterpillar is moving more jobs to Mexico.

Most of the people that rely on government assistance, including the children that participate in Teen R.E.A.C.H., do so because they live in poverty. If they weren't struggling, they wouldn't need government assistance any more than the middle and upper class do.

The families and children I work with, all of whom rely on government assistance in one way or another, do so not because they are lazy and don't want to work, but because there isn't enough work, and what work there is doesn't pay a living wage. We have parents that stand in line for a daily job that pays an annual stipend of $1,000. I've had hardcore gang members do custodial work for pocket change.

So what is essential? Gov. Rauner is worth billions, and adds 60 million dollars a year to his personal coffers. If Gov. Rauner continues to push his agenda of austerity, he should be honest and admit that his wealth isn't essential, either. If he simply shared his wealth, folks might not need essential government services. At the very least, he should guarantee that efficient and effective programs like Teen REACH aren't closed by increasing revenue in the State of Illinois. If he doesn't do it now, he'll leave his predecessor with a much larger burden.

To learn more about why Teen R.E.A.C.H. at Morrill needs to continue to be funded, click HERE to read student testimony.