February is Black History Month – and Illinois’ eighth month without a State budget. As we highlight black people’s contributions to the American narrative, the message sent by Illinois’ budget impasse is hardly celebratory.
All Illinoisans are suffering as the fragile web of supportive services slowly unravels. Communities across the state are feeling the ripple effects of layoffs, reduced services, slow State payments and the tension that comes with sustained uncertainty.
In the midst of our shared suffering, we must acknowledge this sad truth. People of color, especially black people, are enduring the deepest battle scars from this budget stalemate. And if history is our teacher, these will become the scars of future generations. America’s tortured racial history is embedded in the laws and policies that govern all of us, resulting in widening social, health and economic gaps that operating without a state budget only exacerbates.
Earlier this month, Heartland Alliance’s Social IMPACT Research Center issued a report that illustrates how pervasive these disparities are in Illinois. The study reports that despite significant dips over the past several decades, the number of Illinoisans living in poverty today, 14.4%, is almost the same as it was in the late 1960s (14.7%). While under 10% of whites in Illinois are living in poverty and Hispanic and Asian populations each have poverty rates of close to 20%, a whopping 30.6% of black people are living in poverty statewide, while making up less than 15% of Illinois’ population. And what is even more disheartening is that 43.2% of black children under the age of 17 are poor. In fact, poverty among black people outpaces that of whites, Latinos, and Asians in all age categories.
The report lays out a number of health and economic disparities by race. But what is at least as important as the data is the case the authors lay out for the “legacy of inequality” that colors public policy in America. The report offers a historical soundbite of the legalized racist policies of the past that benefited whites and created barriers for people of color, policies and practices that ignore the generational impact of those benefits and barriers, and the practice of mid-twentieth century redlining that seems to have intertwined race, ZIP code and opportunity into perpetuity.
This budget impasse threatens any progress made towards reducing inequalities in Illinois. For example, last year, for the first time in decades, Chicago saw fewer than 1,000 new HIV cases. That does not happen without a network of community organizations and institutions focused on communities hardest hit by the epidemic — black bisexual and gay men, transgender women of color, and black heterosexual women living in communities with high HIV rates. Blacks make up only 15% of the State’s population but account for 50% of new HIV cases. Yet, the governor’s proposed budget includes a devastating 66% cut to the African-American HIV/AIDS Response Act, a dedicated line of HIV funding that supports the black community, the community hardest-hit by HIV. This at a time when an estimated 6,525 Illinoisans do not know their HIV status and nearly 50% of people living with HIV in this State are not receiving any medical care or HIV medications.
One thing is abundantly clear this Black History Month in “the land of Lincoln:” Elections have consequences. We must continue to put pressure on the Governor and our state Legislature to approve a humane budget with a revenue increase even as we prepare ourselves for the next budget battle. As the late poet Maya Angelou often said, “When you know better, you do better.” We can do a lot better, Illinois.
This article was originally posted on RebootIllinois.com.
Executive Director, Pride Action Tank
AIDS Foundation of Chicago