Balancing Budgets With Humanity

10/25/2011 11:18 am ET | Updated Dec 25, 2011

To listen to the current debate in Springfield, it seems that a balanced budget for Illinois means building more casinos and cutting funding for human services. But will that really create a brighter future for us all? Or will it leave those with the least out in the cold?

As it stands, the most vulnerable among us are hanging by a thread. Mental health services, youth programs, health care facilities, food pantries, and job training programs -- the services that consistently receive cuts -- are supports that more than one in 10 Illinoisans count on to stay afloat. Especially now, with unemployment and health care costs skyrocketing while homes devalue, millions more families find themselves in desperate need of help.

Some argue that we can't afford to fund these services. I'd argue that we can't afford not to. When people don't have access to the help they need, they go without -- and they fall behind. Reports show that costs our state hundreds of millions of dollars each year in lost productivity, emergency care, and increased crisis assistance. It's been proven time and time again, though, that by spending money on human services that keep people from hitting rock bottom, we prevent the need for even more costly help down the road. We can keep people housed, fed, and put on the path to self-sufficiency so that everyone can realize the bright future they deserve. All that's missing is the will.

Why else, in this economy, where once stable families are finding themselves in desperate need, would the legislature steadily chip away at these vital services? Not only have they cut their investment in human service programs by $4.4 billion, but they are far behind in paying what is owed to the organizations that provide these critical programs.

As president of Heartland Alliance -- the largest anti-poverty organization in Illinois -- I know this is exactly the wrong approach. I've seen firsthand the impact human services can have on someone's life. Like the father who can now provide for his family because he learned new skills that got him a good-paying job. The mom who got help finding an affordable place to live and now her kids have a safe place to play. The young teen who stayed out of trouble because she had somewhere to go after school.

Having looked these individuals in the eye, I can't now turn and say that their success isn't worth the cost. I can't look at that father, mother, or teen in the eye and say it's cheaper to let them fall and fail -- because it isn't. Human service programs are not a luxury. They are essential, cost-effective approaches to creating a state where everybody has the opportunity to live up to their full potential, and without them, we're gambling not just with money, but with peoples' lives.