Given Illinois’s current economic crisis, the upcoming 2018 governor’s election is more important than ever. For the third straight fiscal year in a row, Illinois will not have a state budget—it’s been more than 700 days since it last had one. Gun violence has spiked in recent years, the Chicago Public School system is strapped for cash, and the state’s backlog of unpaid bills has risen to more than $14.5 billion. What hope do we have for this election? How long can we keep setting ourselves up for politicians that take our votes and then fail to deliver on their campaign promises?
Millionaires and billionaires like to run in elections like this one, but they don’t experience what happens in low-income communities. They don’t live paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyles; they may not need to worry about their local schools shutting down, or high rates of criminal activity in their neighborhoods. Governor Bruce Rauner, the incumbent Republican, announced last June that he is running for reelection. According to Forbes, his net worth is estimated to be nearly $1 billion. Numerous Democratic candidates have also announced their bid for governor, such as J.B. Pritzker, who has a net worth of $3.4 billion, and businessman Chris Kennedy, who has declined to state his net worth but by some estimates is in the tens of millions. But are they in touch with people on the South and West Sides?
There is one Democratic candidate hoping to connect with disadvantaged Chicagoans by running on a progressive platform that would benefit more than just the rich. Ameya Pawar, alderman of the 47th Ward, is looking to forge a “New Deal” for Illinois. Channeling the set of programs implemented by former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt to lift America out of the Great Depression, Pawar hopes to use his own New Deal to get Illinois out of its current crisis.
Foremost, Pawar wants a budget for all of Illinois’s citizens. The state has gone through numerous budget cuts to social services, from child care to domestic violence services. My mom, who used to work as a home health care aid, had to go months without full pay because of Rauner’s cuts. New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo just passed the first state budget in the country to cover students’ in-state tuition at two- and four-year public colleges for families who make under $100,000 a year. Meanwhile, state colleges and universities in Illinois have been forced to make huge cuts, laying off staff and cutting programs, during the budget impasse.
In addition to passing a comprehensive budget, Pawar seeks to reform Illinois’ tax system. He plans to do this through a progressive income tax, which makes the wealthy pay more taxes than low- and middle-income citizens. Currently, Illinois has a regressive income tax where everyone pays the same tax rate. This has more of an effect on lower-income families and individuals because it takes out a larger share of the money they need for basic necessities. Through a progressive tax system under Pawar, the rich would pay more of their fair share, social services would get more funding, and the state could invest more in job growth and infrastructure.
Pawar believes in funding social services, mental health services, and youth intervention programs through his budget—three of the things hurt most by Rauner’s manufactured budget crisis. Pawar also advocates for drastically changing the state’s criminal justice system, telling a crowd in downstate Normal, “We’re spending the money, but we’re spending it to keep people in prison rather than their communities.” In his own ward, he has redirected tax increment financing (TIF) money to renovate his neighborhood schools.
Pawar understands that poverty and inequality are prime factors that lead to crime. On the other hand, Mayor Rahm Emanuel believes that increasing the size of the police force can solve our gun violence epidemic in Chicago. He and Rauner believe that harsher penalties for gun violence can curb the homicide rate, and President Trump believes that “send[ing] in the Feds” will solve Chicago’s situation. All of them are out of touch with the South and West Sides of Chicago. To attack the root of the crime, we have to address the poverty and unemployment levels in these communities with investment. According to his campaign website, Pawar plans to invest in local communities, both in Chicago and in rural areas, by improving deteriorating public infrastructure. For the South and West Sides of Chicago, this means that instead of downtown being the prime area for development, the improvements can be in our own local communities.
At the heart of a community is how strong its schools are. Due to budget impasse, Illinois communities have become weakened because school districts’ funds have been cut, especially Chicago Public Schools. As a student of CPS, I have experienced the turbulence associated with the state’s unequal funding formula and mismanagement at the district’s central office. Just this school year, we didn’t know when school would start, we almost had school interrupted for a teacher strike for a fair contract, and we almost had the school year end three weeks early.
Earlier this year, Rauner vetoed a bill that would have provided the school district $215 million, because Democratic lawmakers didn’t pass his desired pension reform. Emanuel has also been resistant to using TIF funds, which are used to promote public and private investment in the city, to alleviate the budget crisis for CPS. Instead, he now proposes that the district borrow $389 million to finish the school year, adding to its mountain of public debt. On top of that, federal Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is a major supporter of school vouchers and charter schools, which critics believe siphon funds away from public schools. Contrast their attitudes to that of Pawar, whose father studied by candlelight each night before going to school the next day in India. He then immigrated to the United States in hopes of attaining the American Dream. On his campaign website, Pawar says, “Good education is the foundation of economic mobility. It provides a pathway to the middle class, the American Dream, and generational wealth while ensuring everyone can contribute to their community.” Pawar knows that the education of our citizens shouldn’t be the first to take a cut or be used in a political game.
As governor, he would help expand funding for our school districts. According to a study done by The Education Trust, the highest poverty districts in Illinois “receive nearly twenty percent less state and local funding than the lowest poverty districts.” It isn’t fair that the state continues this discriminatory practice based on socioeconomic status, and Pawar promises to work with public education officials to recalculate the formula and put more money into the schools that need them. As for higher education, Pawar plans to expand the Monetary Award Program (MAP), which grants scholarship money to low-income college students. Pawar also plans to work with the Illinois Student Assistance Commission to offer a new student loan refinancing program which is less burdensome for new graduates. Education is a human right and he will stand for it.
The disadvantaged communities of Chicago need to come together and vote for a candidate who will fight for us all. We need a governor who will not cut social services, but one who will expand them. We need a governor who will not put the interests of business before the people, but one who will fight for a progressive income tax, so that the wealthy pay their fair share. We need a governor who will not play political games with the education of our future workforce, but one who will advocate for a new formula to decrease the funding gap between rich and poor districts, expand MAP grants, and fight for a new student loan refinancing program that is fairer for all students.
Pawar’s New Deal for Illinois is not another political campaign message that our communities can ignore. Rather, it is the first step towards the community that we all want our city, county, and state to become.
Nathan Petithomme is a junior at Lindblom Math and Science Academy.
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