Editor's Note: Cutting Support for Kids Will Lead to Larger Costs Later

Apr 1, 2014

Maureen Foertsch McKinney
Credit mattpenning.com 2014 / WUIS - Illinois Issues
Odds are, if a child doesn’t experience good parenting, schooling in early development programs and care for mental illness or other health care needs, he or she will face arrest for a violent crime.

A tragedy for the child and the victim or victims. But the long-range consequences of the child’s situation touch the rest of society. Those costs are tangible and will grow exponentially. 

In what sounded like good news to child welfare experts in Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn called for a new birth-to-5 initiative in his State of the State address in January. Nonetheless, those folks are bracing for the budget for Fiscal Year 2015. That’s when the first phase of the state’s temporary tax increase expires, potentially creating a nearly $2 billion cavity in the coffers and, unless the tax increase is extended, an almost-certain need for draconian reductions.

This comes after a difficult era for children’s services. Though the state’s Early Childhood Block Grant, which pays for preschool and developmental services for infants and toddlers, was spared cuts in FY 2014, between FY ’09 to FY ’13, more than a fifth was trimmed from what was a $378.7 million program, says Larry Joseph, director of Voices for Illinois Children’s Fiscal Policy Center.

“Extensive research has demonstrated the long-term benefits of early childhood education, including enhanced school readiness, reduced crime and improved workforce productivity,” Joseph says. 

For instance, a 2011 report by the nonprofit Amherst H. Wilder Foundation out of St. Paul, Minn. — Cost Savings Analysis of School Readiness in Illinois — found that the actual cost for Illinois of “not investing in school readiness for all disadvantaged children is an estimated $155 million a year.” At that time, the writers of the report estimated that an additional 67,000 3- to 5-year-olds ... [were] not served by the Early Childhood Block Grant — “children whose parents likely want but could not get services.”

Those “preventable” costs included tens of millions in special education spending, juvenile corrections and adult criminal justice. Costs to society included losses for crime victims and health care for drug and alcohol abuse.

Meanwhile, a 2012 study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill showed that participants in its 30-year experiment (the Abecedarian Project), after having had high-quality early childhood education in the ’70s, still had advantages over the control group.

“The research is pretty clear that high-quality early childhood programming has a positive impact on long-term outcomes, and when you start adding up the costs of all the negative outcomes you see relating to arrests, child abuse, adult crime, lost wages from higher income that could have been earned … all these benefits that you don’t have, if you don’t make this investment early on, really start to add up,” says Elliot Regenstein, senior vice president for advocacy and policy at Chicago’s Ounce of Prevention Fund, which is one of the organizations for which Wilder prepared the report.

“So the consequences of not investing in early childhood is particularly substantial, and the research is quite clear that those impacts are there.”

Early childhood education wasn’t all that has been trimmed from children’s programs. The $50.5 million prenatal case management program took a 24 percent cut between Fiscal Years 2008 and ’13. “The consequence in this case is more infants having a low birth weight, boosting hospital costs and creating increased risks for school-age learning disabilities and various chronic health conditions,” Joseph says.

And, he says, “In 2005, the Illinois Children’s Mental Health Partnership released a strategic plan for building a comprehensive, coordinated system of services to promote the healthy social and emotional development of children. The state has taken some important steps to reach more children at younger ages and earlier stages of need, reduce fragmentation of and enhance interagency collaboration. Since 2009, however, Department of Human Services funding for children’s mental health services has been cut 23 percent,” from $68.7 million to $52.9 million.

Colette Lueck is managing director of the Illinois Children’s Mental Health Partnership, an “umbrella coalition of agencies and advocates, and families and policymakers who are all trying to advance a public health approach to mental health.” She says, “Treating kids in the juvenile justice system is extraordinarily expensive as opposed to the sort of work earlier in an outpatient facility that’s much less expensive and keeps those kids in their homes and communities and their schools as opposed to a more contained facility where they’re out of their home. So family relationships are difficult; they’re out of their community so their community no longer feels connected to them and they no longer feel connected to their community. And their treatment gets more difficult. 

“We certainly see cycles of kids who are in and out of treatment again because their problems were not recognized at an earlier age or stage of need,” Lueck says.

“I’ve been very concerned about what’s going to happen, in particular [about] the tax increase and the implications in terms of what it means if the tax increase is not renewed or continued. But with mental health, the mental health system has been underfunded since the 1970s,” Lueck says. “So you’re adding cuts onto a program that was already not able to meet the needs of kids in Illinois. It’s not like your starting at an A and moving to a B. You’re starting well below that and moving to something even less.” 

Education, another area where there are long-term consequences for slashing spending, is also underfunded in Illinois.

Tara García Mathewson reports in this issue: “Illinois consistently ranks at or near the bottom when it comes to measures of state funding, whether it is based on the state’s overall share, state funding per pupil in real dollars or state funding as a percentage of total personal income.”

In January, the State Board of Education issued a press release calling for “lawmakers and the governor to invest in students and the state’s economic future by changing their budgeting focus to increase the state’s share of funding for education in order for Illinois to remain competitive nationally and internationally.”

The board called for a $1.08 billion increase in school spending, noting that “when adjusting the FY 09 K-12 education budget for inflation, the Board’s request amounts to a 1.5 percent decrease.” 

State Board of Education Chairman Gery Chico stated in the release: “There is no doubt this is a lot of money, and some may scoff at our request, but we cannot shortchange our students, because we’re only hurting our state’s future.” 

Lueck says the state’s financial crisis has been a burden for families, too, creating more stress.

“You’re cutting services at a time when services are most needed; that stress leaks out, and it is felt by children and they’re impacted by it so this is the time when we need more attention to the mental health needs of children — not less.”

Illinois Issues, April 2014