Credit: Thinkstock
Home visiting programs send nurses and social workers to coach mothers in nurturing their newborns. They also save the state money down the line.Credit: Thinkstock

While higher education in Illinois finally got some emergency funding last week, lower education is still rattling its tin cup and hoping the state will toss a nickel in it.

By “lower education,” I don’t mean elementary schools or even pre-Ks, because learning starts far before that. I’m referring to programs that help poor children in their earliest months and years. 

Illinois was among the first states to recognize the value of “home visiting” programs, in which nurses or social workers, trained in early child development, coach mothers in nurturing their newborns, infants, and toddlers. Most of the mothers are unmarried teens, and often the home visits begin when the teen is pregnant. Children in such programs are less likely to be abused or neglected, research suggests, and tend to receive their immunizations on time. Disabilities that might not be detected until a child is in school are noticed sooner, when intervention can be more helpful. 

Home visiting programs reap significant savings for states down the line, studies have indicated. It’s one reason Illinois has funded these programs since the 1980s—and also a reason Illinois is being foolish for not funding them now.

Back when Illinois last had a budget, from July 1, 2014 through June 30, 2015, the programs got $16.5 million from the Department of Health and Human Services. Since July 1, they’ve received almost nothing—for services the state has contracted with them to provide.

“On March 11th, our agency made the painful decision to suspend three programs, including home visiting services for 114 families,” Vanessa Schwartz told an Illinois House appropriations committee in a downtown hearing Wednesday. Schwartz, who supervises such programs for Metropolitan Family Services, said that most of the rest of her agency’s home visiting programs will have to be closed if funding for them isn’t received soon. 

Metropolitan Family Services is a large nonprofit. Many of the smaller agencies have already been forced to suspend their home visiting services. Metropolitan has managed to keep some of its programs operating by borrowing, making the agency in effect an “involuntary lender” to Illinois, as Schwartz put it.

Home visiting programs aren’t alone in their recent struggles; many social service programs have been badly weakened by the state’s budget impasse. Besides Schwartz, representatives of agencies that help seniors, youth, the homeless, and the disabled also testified to the house committee about how hard it’s been to keep helping their clients. 

After legislators and Governor Bruce Rauner found $600 million last week for state universities and community colleges, the Senate unanimously passed a bill that would provide some funding for a variety of social service programs, including $5.9 million for home visiting. That’s 36 percent of what the home visiting programs got in the previous fiscal year.

The legislature adjourned for Passover before the House could act on the bill, so while social service providers are hopeful that they’ll finally get some scraps for their programs, it remains to be seen what happens when the General Assembly reconvenes Tuesday.

The legislature passed a budget in June, but Rauner vetoed it because it wasn’t balanced. A balanced budget was “the only way to responsibly protect taxpayers” and necessary after “years of fiscal neglect and overspending,” the governor said at the time.

There’s been a standoff ever since between the Republican governor and the Democratic-controlled legislature, with Rauner insisting that reductions in workers’ comp benefits and collective bargaining rights be part of budget negotiations.

Rauner voiced optimism Wednesday, pointing to the higher education agreement as a sign of progress. He said the possibility that Chicago State University might close had forced the agreement. “Elected officials respond to pressure,” the governor said. “This is a crisis. And that definitely focuses the mind.”

But social service programs don’t fare well when they’re held hostage, even if funding later materializes. Schwartz told me Wednesday that although home visiting clients volunteer for the programs, they’re still often initially wary of their visiting mentors. Clients need dependable, consistent relationships with those mentors, she said. Staff who are laid off when money from the state isn’t forthcoming usually don’t return when it is; they’ve found other jobs, or moved on to careers that seem more dependable. The new home visitors hired to replace them have to be retrained. It’s hard to convince clients who are terminated from a home visiting program to enroll in the program again when money becomes available, and those who do return have to start over with a new mentor.

Home visiting programs receive some federal funding, grants that are contingent on states funding the programs at particular levels. Because Illinois hasn’t been meeting those levels, the federal grants now are also in jeopardy.

Emily Miller, policy director for Voices for Illinois Children, an advocacy nonprofit, said that if $5.9 million is indeed allocated to home visiting programs next week, the agencies still offering those programs will be relieved “that they can keep providing some services, so more lives aren’t ruined. But it’s not a long-term solution.

“At this point, there’s been irreparable damage,” Miller said, “so it’s about salvaging the pieces that are left.”