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Illinois Thu May 28 2009

Meet Amy, Your Employee

Amy Seidenbecker has worked for Illinoisans for three years. They are her employers via the Department of Human Services, specifically the Family Community Resource Center (FCRC) in Uptown. She's a Human Services Caseworker. Amy's job, in a nutshell, is to make sure people who need assistance--"We have integrated caseloads, which means all types of cases, and I like that; I have seniors, disabled people (mentally and physically), working poor, unemployed, underemployed, and homeless," she told me--are able to get assistance. This is what we mean by "government spending"; making sure that Amy is there to provide the services that keep working families' heads up above water, to keep them productive, hopefully healthy, and integrated into our economy.

As you can guess, Amy has not gotten rich as a DHS caseworker. Despite the caricatures of "public employees" getting fat on their collectively-bargained salary, as you can guess, Amy earns a living wage for the city of Chicago, where she also lives. She's a college graduate who went to work for the DHS for stability and "in order to do something directly helping people." Hers is a job that most reasonable people would agree needs to exist, to keep the social safety net that prevents catastrophe in good mend. She adds value to our community.

So why are coalitions of the most powerful people in our community always trying to destroy her job?

When the right beats the well-worn drum of "cutting spending", its always done in a vague way. Plenty of thinking conservatives, particularly in our state, advocate for sensible spending; they want to see balanced budgets and dedicated revenue streams. They want taxes cut to levels that support the spending determined by statute. Reasonable people can disagree here, and there is plenty of fun to be had debating what makes a wise program, and when deficit spending is a good idea and when we should take pains to keep the books balanced. The vast majority on both sides are reasonable on the issue.
Amy estimated that in her three years on the job she's served over 11,000 families from her Waukegan and Chicago locations. These are people who are trying to get back on their feet--by far the vast majority are employed and desperately trying to get their feet on solid ground. That's what we want, right? To make sure people who work hard and stay honest can achieve at least modest stability and success, right?

"It's rewarding helping my clients, who overall have great attitudes, considering their circumstances, and honestly inspire me with their faith and strength," Amy says. Yet come budget time, it's always people like Amy Seidenbecker that Important, Serious People like the Civic Federation want to go after. They want the $18,000 pension she'll earn after 30 years on the job (and some 110,000 Illinois families served).

Amy's not getting rich on the taxpayer's nickel. She works hard in difficult conditions--"Our caseloads are now over 1,000, including covering the three or four peoples' caseloads who have retired or left in the last several months, and the state has not hired for over a year and a half to replace them...there are no new trainees in the pipeline, a hiring freeze, and no transfers."--for a working class wage. Would you put up with her work, day in and day out? Would you call Amy Seidenbecker a "waste"?

The Civic Federation and Commercial Club mewl and puke about the Amy Seidenbeckers of our community, aching to get more of that money back into their pockets. As Seidenbecker pointed out to me, this is literal: in the last six years, billions of dollars of pension fund money was "improperly invested in risky instruments including derivatives sold by AIG, JP Morgan, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, and Deutsche Bank--$600 million invested in these derivatives in 2003 remain outstanding as of 12/31/08," she says. It's exactly this kind of double standard that has motivated Seidenbecker to organize her colleagues and her community.

"Many of us have been meeting with and calling legislators and we're encouraged by the senators we have met with, who do have the courage and wisdom to raise some taxes and much-needed revenue for the anemic state," she says. Seidenbecker has thrown herself into the fight to protect funding for these critical programs.

With a few exceptions, government spending has not outpaced inflation in Illinois the last eight years or so; current deficits are not the result of drunken spending but of declining revenues (via--where else?--Rich Miller's Capitol Fax).

AFSCME Council 31, the union of public employees, is determined to make the connection the right wing is always trying to sever: that "government spending" is not inherently wasteful, that "government employees" are your hard working neighbors, who sometimes work under incredible strain to deliver the services we determine are critical. People like correctional officers, drug rehabilitation specialists, DCFS case workers that protect children, and any number of publicly accountable workers who we call in in times of crisis or need--and are the first to get blamed when something goes wrong.

To that end, they've launched Fair Budget Illinois.

The problem is that the right is riddled with economic extremists for whom a nickel of government spending is too much; they think that if "the government" is spending money, then by definition the spending is "wasteful".

Of course, that's ridiculous. It's why the right wing's elected politicians are only capable of cutting spending when they can sufficiently demonize the group being "spent on": so for example, the right (and this includes conservatives and reactionaries of all partisan stripes) was able to "end welfare as we know it" by spending a generation demonizing welfare recipients as shifty, lazy minorities who are also probably criminals, gaming the system.

The extreme right wing often don't know or care what amount of government spending is optimal; they will always agitate for more cuts. It's all wasteful to them, so they will always push for more "cuts." As Josh Kalven and Adam Doster at PI pointed out, they won't be specific about what is wasteful, or where the cuts need to come: like Andrea True Connection, they just want more, more, more.

When there aren't convenient minorities or Laz-o-Americans to pick on, the people to go after are the much-loathed "government employees." Conjure up images of long lines at the DMV (in our case, Secretary of State's offices) or the Post Office, and voila. Lazy government workers! You work so hard--why should yer tax money go to those lazy government employees!? Lazy!

The fact of the matter is that employers would rather have us going after the little bit more that public employees have been able to bargain for than start to look at the enormous profits the upper class keeps for themselves: the fact that productivity has skyrocketed while income has stayed static for the working American; the fact that the ratio between CEO pay and median income in the US is the most lopsided on the planet.

The demonization of public spending on public services needs to stop. Everyone's happy to pile on the public employees until there's nobody to answer the phone.

Disclosure: I was employed by AFSCME Council 31 between 2005 and 2007

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TC / August 7, 2009 11:39 AM

Ugh! You commies make me wanna puke!!

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