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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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At the Jane Addams Senior Caucus meeting on April 7 in the senior home at 4040 North Sheridan, a senior activist named Gene Horcher of the told a story about a friend of his, a man in his eighties, who'd suffered from a minor stroke. It seems the man was admitted to a hospital and then after a few days of care was transferred to a state run nursing home. Weak, confused, and temporarily disabled, the man was unable to get a straight answer about when he would be released. He couldn't even get an independent medical opinion about what kind of care he would need and why a nursing home stay was necessary. He was uncomfortable and depressed, and, worse, helpless. He was being imprisoned, and his crime was being elderly and ill.

Finally, he was able to get his niece to come in and demand some answers, or else he would leave AMA -- "against medical advice." Finally he was evaluated and discharged into the care of a personal assistant via a homecare program established by the state and administered by the Department on Aging.

"How many people in this room," Horcher asked, "are afraid that they'll get sick and trapped in a nursing home, helpless?" Twenty or so hands -- nearly every hand in the room -- went up. For many low-income seniors, being whisked away against their will without the resources to resist is a great and justified fear. After a lifetime of productivity, hard work, and contributions to community, we as a singular unified society owe our seniors the peace of mind of knowing they have a choice in their own care.

By and large, that choice is having a homecare worker or personal assistant come and take care of them in their own home -- in their own environment where they can retain a semblance of control over their own life, and live with the dignity they've earned over their lifetime.

Increasingly, that choice is becoming limited. Personal assistants for low-income seniors are paid by the state via private agencies, as opposed to personal assistants for disabled folks in need of rehabilitation, who are paid directly through the Department of Rehabilitation Services. Their going rate is far less than the DORS workers, for no good reason. This seriously limits the ability of personal assistants to stay in that line of work for very long, or dedicate the time and resources to it they would like -- it simply isn't worth their time at $6.10 an hour. As a result, many seniors must waste away in a nursing home, feeling isolated and trapped, feeling like children with no say in how they may live their own life.

The worst part of it is, the state saves money by assigning homecare workers to the elderly.

Ralph Martire of the Sun-Times points out that the state would save $25,000 per individual by assigning a well-compensated homecare workers to that person. Luckily, the state government has begun to understand this reasoning, which one would figure was obvious enough. Reprsentative Karen Yarbrough introduced legislation -- House Bill 4176 -- that would bring up the pay of DOA homecare workers to the level of the DORS workers. Hopefully, more benefits and pay raises will be added over the next few years to give our elderly the choice they deserve and attract more homecare workers who are happier with their jobs -- and therefore more productive.

The issue of homecare workers for the elderly, which essentially boils down to a human rights question, is illustrative of the problems which infest the state of Illinois' entire budgetary structure. Many programs that make sense are left unfunded out of fear of making the budget look any more irresponsible. Illinois is the proud home of one of the most oppressive, regressive tax systems in the country, wherein the wealthiest end up paying the least and the bottom quarter the most. This is exacerbated by the high number and amount of various fees and sales taxes many people in Cook County have to pay, which end up being a larger proportion of what the poor have as opposed to the wealthy.

Because of this regressive tax system, Illinoisans suffer in services. Our schools are ridiculously tied completely and utterly to property taxes, which basically condemns children in low-income areas to attend magnificently underperforming schools. Yet we are always hearing about our "bloated budget," when in reality, Illinois does not spend foolishy. We simply don't collect money in a way that makes any sense.

This is not class war or tax-the-rich-out-of-existence nonsense. I mean, I supported a guy worth $500m for public office. A progressive tax system is necessary because if the gap between rich and poor becomes any greater then tax revenues will plummet further. And if this happens, infrastructure will suffer as the state is forced to cut back on vital improvements like roads, telecommunications, waterways, etc. Also, as our schools plummet in the national ratings, businesses and new industries looking for a place to relocate or expand will avoid Illinois (and especially the near suburbs of Chicago) like a plague, since a serious "education gap" is an indicator of a less-than-employable workforce. The dynamic duo of ratty, splotchy infrastructure and failing schools will drive businesses and industry out, limit outside investment, and seriously hinder the ability of the state to borrow or even get adequate federal funding for new programs.

And what happens then? At that point, even many of the lower-end wealthy will feel the squeeze and either up and leave or see their fortunes shrink. All of these adverse conditions will take money out of the hands of the spending class (the lower-middle and middle class) which will shrink aggregate demand and push investment and businesses out, making our only hope "gimmicky" economic centers, like casinos, convention centers, and huge shopping malls.

A very wise man once made a graph:

It can teach us much. Keep our economy healthy -- educate our children. Fix our neighborhoods. And don't rob our elderly of their dignity, of their very human rights. And all it'll cost us is a chance at fiscal disaster.

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