Policy and Politics in the Land of Lincoln

Suzanne Strassberger

Suzanne Strassberger writes about the personalities, minutiae, and back-stories behind decision-making in Springfield.

Policy and Politics in the Land of Lincoln

“If you want happiness for a lifetime, help the next generation.” Old Chinese proverb

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Last week in Springfield, leaders from the Jewish community and the Jewish Federation agencies were shocked to hear legislators and the Governor's top people make not so veiled threats to funding for human services if the State's temporary tax increase sunsets on Jan. 1, 2015. 

The Jewish community is divided on tax and revenue policy; always has been and always will be. 

But the Jewish community is united around the importance of human services. They give generously, $81 million last year in the Chicago area alone. They volunteer, spending long hours helping people directly and serving on agency committees and Boards of Directors.  They advocate, trekking down to Springfield and Washington, DC to speak out for programs that help those in need.

Some Americans have accused human service recipients as being the "undeserving poor," lazy and manipulative and so deserving of their fate of destitution.  Others, more subtly, suggested that human services, however well-meaning, might actually promote dependency, and thus should only be given with many strings attached.  The shame of being a recipient was part of the cost associated with getting help.

These themes are not part of the Jewish liturgy or personal narrative.  

Perhaps this is because of Maimonides. He was a twelfth century Spanish Jew who is frequently quoted for his "Eight Levels of Giving" which he articulated in his commentary on the Jewish Laws Governing Giving to the Poor. Worthiness of the recipient and fear of promoting continued dependency are never mentioned as points to be considered. Nor is the status of the budget of the giver a point to be considered.

Perhaps this is because many Jews are only one or two generations removed from being vulnerable and in need of the kindness of human services.  We grew up with stories of the Great Depression and the Holocaust.

Perhaps it is because those who have turned to human service agencies for help are often proud to tell the story of how they were once recipients and now are able to give back.  It is a badge of honor.

Perhaps it is because we worry about our children, siblings, neighbors, and friends and want to make sure that human services will be there for them, should they need it.

On some level, I assume that our elected leaders share our belief in the power of human services to build healthy individuals, families, entire communities.  I like to think they know that human services provided in the community, in homes and schools and centers, is a respectful and cost-effective approach to helping those in need, from newborns to the frail elderly; from those suffering the pain of abuse to those with developmental disabilities; from those challenged by mental illness and addiction to those challenged to pay the bills on a minimum wage job. 

Listening to the outrage of our Jewish leaders in Springfield at the callous use of funding for human services as a pawn to force the Jewish community into providing public support for a tax increase made me rethink it all. There is always enough money in the budget if something is important; witness funding for Presidential libraries. So, why is it ok to even suggest taking from human services?

What elected leader is brave enough to say? "I will find the revenues necessary to make sure that human services continue to be provided in my community."

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