End and Means: Same-Sex Parents Should be the Least of Concerns over Kids

May 1, 2013

Charles N. Wheeler III
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
During this spring’s debate over same-sex marriage, a recurring theme among opponents has been the dire societal consequences they said would result from its legalization.

True, biblical injunctions tended to dominate the conversation. But religious convictions aside, the antis argued that were Illinois law to define marriage as a union between two persons — rather than as a union between one man and one woman — the traditional family structure would be threatened, the institution of marriage as a contract for procreation would be undermined and religious freedom would be curtailed. Perhaps most devastating, religious leaders and social conservatives contended, would be the psychological and emotional damage inflicted on children who might be raised by a gay or lesbian couple in a state-sanctioned union.

“Children cannot be brought up in a situation where they cannot have a mother and father,” explained one protester at a February Statehouse rally against same-sex marriage, echoing the recurring theme.

For all such certainty, though, research findings don’t support the purported harm being raised in a single-gender family might have. “The vast majority of scientific studies that have directly compared gay and lesbian parents with heterosexual parents has consistently shown that the former are as fit and capable parents as the latter and that their children are as psychologically healthy and well adjusted,” noted an amicus brief filed by the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychiatric Association, and five other professional organizations in one of the gay marriage cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Still, the anti-gay marriage folks are to be commended for their concern about the children’s welfare, hypothetical though the threat may be. One well might wish for a similar mobilization on behalf of kids whose futures really are at stake, as lawmakers craft a budget for the fiscal year starting July 1.

Consider, for example, the disturbing news that more than 660,000 Illinois youngsters were living in poverty in 2011, the last year for which data is available, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The number is up from about 600,000 the year before, and 500,000 a decade earlier. The child poverty rate, meanwhile, climbed to 21.6 percent in 2011, up from 19.4 percent in 2010 and 15.4 percent in 2000. The census numbers are even worse for children under the age of 5, with one out of four living in poverty.

“Growing up in poverty can have serious and long-lasting effects on children’s health, development, and overall well-being,” noted Voices for Illinois Children, a long-time advocate. “The effects of poverty have a well-documented impact on young children’s developing brains. And children who grow up in poverty are more likely to experience harmful levels of stress, more likely to struggle in school and more likely to have behavioral, social and emotional problems than their peers.”

So one might rightly conclude that childhood poverty poses a greater threat than same-sex marriage to the youngsters who represent the state’s future.

Or look at the state’s commitment to early childhood education, a proven ticket to later academic success. In his March budget address, Gov. Pat Quinn proposed level funding for the program, which funds preschool programs for 3 - and 4-year-olds as well as child development services for at-risk infants and toddlers. The $350 million allocation represents an $80 million cut — 21 percent cut — from Fiscal Year 2009. As a result, about 18,000 fewer preschoolers will be served than six years ago, according to the State Board of Education.

“Extensive research has demonstrated the short-term and long-term educational and economic benefits of investing in high-quality preschool,” Voices for Illinois Children said in a news release accompanying its Illinois Kids Count 2013 report. “Studies in Illinois have shown significant improvements in school-readiness skills among children participating in state-funded preschool programs,” the child advocacy group added.

Missing out on early learning opportunities can have a serious, lifelong impact on a child, says Voices President Gaylord Gieseke. “It’s critical to remember that a child only grows up once. There’s no do-over. You’re only 5 once, you’re only 10 once.”

The advocacy group is hoping to boost preschool funding by $40 million next year, restoring half the dollars cut since 2009, but it’s a tough environment with legislators looking for more places to cut, Gieseke says.

Early childhood education is one of several areas in which the state’s current fiscal woes threaten to undercut significant strides made in recent years to improve the lives of Illinois children and families, Voices noted in its annual analysis measuring the well-being of Illinois children.

Also under stress is the Child Care Assistance Program, which helps provide access to affordable day care for low-income working families. While Quinn wants to increase funding for the program by some $28 million next year, the $1 billion total outlay still would be some $132 million less than two years ago. Tighter eligibility standards and substantially higher family co-payments have reduced the number of covered children to about 170,000 a month, down from more than 190,000 a month a decade ago.

“Providing access to affordable, stable, and high-quality child care is important for both the economic security of families and the healthy development of their children,” the Voices report noted.

Deep funding cuts pose similar challenges to child welfare services, community mental health programs serving children and adolescents, and other important initiatives, according to Voices.

“There’s lots of pressure on these critical programs,” Gieseke says. “It’s clear there’s not significant new money, there’s a huge backlog of unpaid bills, pressures on the budget.”

Additional revenues clearly would help. In testimony before the Senate Revenue Committee last month, Larry Joseph, the director of Voices’ Fiscal Policy Center endorsed a couple of Quinn’s proposals to close loopholes in the corporate income tax and suggested lawmakers adopt the governor’s higher revenue estimate and consider tapping other funds to shore up the state’s main account. In all, the proposals would generate more than $500 million in new revenue that could be used to stave off some of the pending cuts.

“We believe that children and these fundamental programs should be a high priority on any policy maker’s list,” says Gieseke. “We’re talking about our future work force and economic health. The decisions we make now do have a long-term impact.”

Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois Springfield. 

Illinois Issues, May 2013