January 3, 2018; Crain’s Chicago Business
Last July, when the Illinois legislature passed a budget over the objections of Governor Bruce Rauner and ended almost three years of political feuding, the state’s nonprofit community hoped a funding nightmare that had already caused great harm might have ended. Chicago Tribune reporter Eric Zorn wrote at the time that the passage of a state budget had “yanked us back from the edge of the cliff, sprinkled water on the fire, applied the tourniquet.… The pile of outstanding bills will shrink. Human services will stabilize.” Yet a recent announcement by a Chicago nonprofit that it was ending a well-respected youth program is a sign that Zorn may have been too optimistic and that Illinois nonprofits still face serious financial challenges.
In November, Mujeres: Latinas en Acción told those it served that its only youth program, Proyecto Juventud, would close on New Year’s Eve. Formed four decades ago, Mujeres provides a long, wide list of services to Chicago’s large Latinx community—afterschool programs for youth and teens; parental support programs; counseling, crisis intervention, and court advocacy for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault; court supervised visitation for non-custodial parents; referrals to medical and financial support resources for women in need; and leadership development programs. As 2018 begins, the toll of years of struggle with Illinois’s inadequate funding for its social service providers has forced the agency to end its afterschool programs and essentially stop serving children and youth.
Mujeres made this call to protect the organization overall, judging it could no longer make up for the state funding shortfall. According to its press release, this decision “ensures the 44-year-old organization’s long-term sustainability in fulfilling its mission…. Like thousands of Illinois nonprofit organizations, Mujeres has been hit hard by the state’s budget crisis. Pivoting our fundraising strategy and support from our donors and communities allowed Mujeres to keep the program going as long as it did, but over the past several years, we’ve witnessed the continuing shortfall of funding-specifically for youth programs.”
Linda Tortolero, Mujeres’ CEO, told the Chicago Sun-Times that “the shutdown is a symptom of a much larger problem in Chicago that plagues [Latinx] and African American communities.”
In a city like Chicago, where there are so many challenges for students of color, in terms of violence, poor schools, lack of opportunities…it’s sad when we have to make these decisions to cut programs that affect these young people. I think that we, as a society, need to figure out a better way to make sure these programs for students of color continue. It’s not a challenge Mujeres has alone.
The problem is extensive; for years, Illinois’s funding for its network of social service providers has not kept pace with the costs of service. To receive state funding, social service agencies were expected to find ways to make up for funding shortfalls if they desired to keep contracting with the state to provide the services their clients required. When the state could not pass a budget for almost three years and its operating deficit soared, a bad situation went critical. State payments to nonprofits were even further reduced, if they were made at all. Nora Collins-Mandeville, public policy director of the Illinois Collaboration on Youth, described the impact on many social providers to Crain’s Chicago Business in October: “Many agencies have already run up credit lines, laid off staff and dramatically reduced the number of people they serve. In some cases, faced with no way to make ends meet at multiple points over the past few years, some providers have even been forced to close their doors in clients’ faces, which, goes against every fiber of why agencies do what they do.”
When a budget was approved, these underlying problems were not solved. In October, Governor Rauner said the budget was not still not balanced and that he needed to find $1.5 billion in reductions. Among the plans he announced were $89 million in cuts to funds social service agencies thought they could rely upon. For organizations like Mujeres that heavily depend on state contracts, this again forced them to either find a way to fund what the state was reneging on or regretfully walk away from their clients. According to Collins-Mandeville,
While service providers do receive financial support from other sources, unpredictable state funding jeopardizes those resources as well. Some private foundations that supplement state dollars have decided to pull out amid the budget chaos because they don’t want to throw good money after bad as agencies discover mid-stream they will no longer be able to continue offering certain services.
Mujeres’ need to end an important service indicates that the harm list of program curtailments and agency closures that NPQ reported just days before the budget impasse ended may continue to grow. The unwillingness of state political leaders to take seriously their responsibility to citizens who rely on social service organizations to ensure a basic, minimal quality of life continues. As they argue, the nonprofit provider infrastructure continues to crumble. We asked then if they really cared. Judging from the closure of Proyecto Juventud, maybe they don’t.—Martin Levine