It was a hot mess for a good cause at the Illinois state capitol Wednesday afternoon. I myself was not in Springfield. Yet, I can imagine the spectacle of an impassioned rally where hundreds to thousands of people gathered — those who provide direct care to people with disabilities.
When I was publisher, I was constrained, limiting my support of politically charged issues to words printed on the Post Bulletin's opinion page. Now, in my CEO role of the Center for Disability Services, I am free to advocate with my presence where and when it matters most to the constituents I serve.
My first formal foray into learning the ropes of legislative advocacy occurred the same day as the Springfield rally. I had been invited to attend the bimonthly meeting of the Institute on Public Policy for People with Disabilities. While workers from my own organization took a vacation day to rally with the multitude at the Illinois capitol, I occupied a seat 106 miles north of there in historic Pontiac, with about 30 top leaders representing disability service agencies.
I do not believe there is a wider gap in the space between us than the fiscal disparity of Illinois and Minnesota. If these two states were cousins at a family reunion, the Minnesota grannies would be tsk-tsking, taking the Illinois grandkid by its literal ear and telling it to shape up or else.
Illinois takes in tens of billions of dollars in tax money each year. It is not that the state doesn't have revenue. Rather, it is the appalling obligations that drain the coffer.
Much of Illinois' income is spent on state pension payments and debt service. Large chunks of tax revenues go to prisons and schools. After those expenses have been taken off the top, the remainder is what's left for lawmakers and the governor to decide how to spread around.
Departments that fund key social service programs — such as care for the disabled — face a yearly fight to maintain their share of state dollars and stave off program cuts.
The stubbornness of Gov. Bruce Rauner over fiscal reform, and unyielding opposition by state legislators, has left Illinois without a spending budget for nearly two years. What is an improbable situation in the North Star State is wretched reality in the Land of Lincoln.
The average wage of direct support professionals (DSPs) in Illinois is $9.35 per hour. Does that far-from-a-living-wage fact sink in, folks?
While this situation personally saddens me, I completely understand why living in that reality angers those who work damn hard for the money. If only you could see how relentless DSPs serve those with mental and physical disabilities, teaching important independent-living skills and challenging them to be the best they are able.
At my own agency, DSPs are paid a bit more than the state average. It would be criminal not to in a community where warehouse workers and fast-food servers are paid $13 to $15 per hour for far less stressful employment.
How does CDS do it? No surprise that my staff performs miracles in grant-writing, fundraising and donor development to supplement the paucity of state funding. All that, and cost-conscious fiscal management, allows CDS to be barely in the black at the end of each month. All the while we smile as we advance the lives of those challenged by disability.
Illinois has not increased rates for developmental disability services in eight years. The objective of the "They Deserve More" campaign is to increase wages to $15 per hour.
The Institute on Public Policy for People with Disabilities is at the forefront of the wage-increase campaign. I felt fortunate to spring from my daily routine to sit at the table Wednesday and discern a plan of action, to become engaged in a movement to recruit, train, compensate and retain a stable workforce to support people with disabilities and their dedicated caregivers.
They deserve more.