Imagine if you will, a double pendulum suspended from a great height. At the end of a long wire is a large spherical mass. From the bottom of that sphere another wire of some length, shorter than the first, extends to another smaller sphere. The first mass is moved a distance away from the center of gravity — the point of equilibrium — and is released–swinging back to the center and beyond. Initially, the smaller sphere remains at pace with the larger mass above it but as the pendulum reaches the apex of its arc, the smaller mass below does not stop but arcs out further still from the mass above, increasing in momentum propelled by the kinetic energy of the larger swing. In the economic downturn swing in the U.S., this fairly well expresses the current experience of the social ministry organizations who serve the individuals and families most effected by job loss and under employment. Their capacity to help the increasing number of people needing support and assistance is further diminished by the compounded effect of public funding cuts.
Concordia Place, a community ministry of Concordia Lutheran Church, celebrates a milestone anniversary this year, rejoicing in our mission of 30 years to “create involved communities where all our neighbors can gather, learn, and grow.” We offer child care for children from birth through full day preschool, after-school and summer camp programs for school age children, an Emerging Leaders Teen program for High School students, English as a second language classes for the neighborhood, and a Senior Wellness program. We have grown to become a multigenerational place where varied economic, ethnic, racial, and faith backgrounds come together in an atmosphere of mutual appreciation and respect.
From its inception, Concordia Place programs for children have been directed to serving the needs of all the families in our diverse community, making the programs we offer responsive to the need for child care in working single parent households while affordable to families regardless of economic level. We achieve this by employing a sliding tuition scale; program tuition is adjusted by family annual income. Lower income families have qualified for tuition subsidies through the Illinois Department of Human Services’ Child Care Certificate program and the Community Partnership Prevention Initiative program and Preschool for All Program.
The development of this model for our Children’s programs has accomplished several key objectives:
- Affordable programs meeting the child care needs of struggling working families and single parent households (52% single parent households, 58% low income).
- Quality programs with high standards for teachers, curriculum, and facility achieving the highest levels of accreditation (Quality Counts three Star rating, National Association for the Education of Young Children).
- Diversity in the classroom where the children and families in our programs reflect the full ethnic and economic diversity of our community; families of all income levels benefit from our sliding tuition model (66% minority, 30 % pay full tuition).
At a recent board meeting, the assistant director for the Early Learning program, Jennifer Bonhard, related an example of the value the programs have not only for the families’ need for child care but for the development of even the youngest children. A four month old infant enrolled in our program showed signs of late development — poor eye tracking and suppressed interest and engagement with adults. Teaching staff and the family support staff began working with the child and her mom. In this process, they learned that the mom wanted to foster the values of independence and self reliance in her child and thought the best way to do so would be restrict the time she held the child or comforted her when crying. Personal education with the mom on the significance or cuddling, comforting, and nurturing in healthy child development has completely turned this situation around. At eight months, the child exhibits healthy, normal behavior.
The impact of the economic downturn has affected the families we serve and has compromised our capacity to meet the needs of our community. Families enrolled at Concordia Place have suffered job losses, but the far more pervasive impact of the downturn has been for households that are experiencing a reduction in hours in employment. Coupled with the income losses and financial struggles of our most vulnerable families, funding reductions and additional restrictions for these families receiving tuition support through Illinois State programs has further burdened them. Significant cuts to the Child Care Certificate Program (CCCP) and two Community Partnership Programs — the Prevention Initiative program for children six weeks to 36 months and the Preschool for All Program for children three to five years old — have been made in 2010 and 2011 with additional reductions being considered for the new fiscal year.
In 2010, 50 families received funding through the Prevention Initiative program serving our youngest children (infants, toddlers, and two year olds). For 2011, this funding has been reduced to only 19 families. Additional cuts are under consideration for 2012. Preschool for All funded 95 families in 2010 but only 45 families in 2011. Qualified lower income families receive tuition subsidies through the Child Care Certificate program to help them meet the costs of full day child care and after school care programs; they pay a monthly co-pay determined by family income and number of dependents. This year, the parent co-pays have been increased by 30% to 60%, a range of $12 to $100 monthly.
Families that suffer job loss may continue on tuition subsidy through the Child Care Certificate program, but after three months unemployed, they are disqualified. A single mom who has three children in three of our programs, one each in the after school, full day preschool, and early learning programs, and who is struggling to complete her college degree while working part-time, was unable to meet the increased co-pay with only four months to complete her degree. Families that have their employment hours reduced from full time to part time now not only find meeting the increased co-pay costs difficult to support but face disqualification for tuition subsidies as well.
The experience of our families and the impact on our capacity to meet their needs here at Concordia Place is multiplied many times over for thousands of social service agencies in Illinois, including the social service agencies of our church: Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, Lutheran Child and Family Services, Advocate Health Care, Lutheran Advocacy-Illinois, Bethel New Life, and Mosaic.
Budget reduction debates and government spending cuts are key priorities for government. Underlying the budget battles addressing the issue of debt before every branch of government today is the question: to what extent is the government responsible for its citizens? Who is charged with the care and support of the most vulnerable and least capable members of our community? What is government responsible for?
Rightly or wrongly, the responsibility of government to serve its citizens is debated as a means of balancing budgets in today’s economic downturn. The church’s responsibility to care and support for the most vulnerable cannot be debated. The church is so mandated. The gospel is not simply a proclamation and hope made from the pulpit. The church has resources, members, facilities. How these resources are used is an embodiment of the Gospel — or not. The resurrection is not simply an empty tomb and future eschatological event; it is the hoped for life experienced now. The church has a mission to proclaim that embodies the risen Christ to a broken world, a failing community, a struggling family, a suffering child.
The church has arms and legs, bodies and abilities. The church will continue to look for ways to witness to Christ’s Gospel by serving the least capable in our communities and will seek the means to do so. The church also has a voice. The church has a mandate to hold before our public officials and governing agencies their responsibility for its citizens; government needs to provide for the children, families, disabled, and seniors in our neighborhood or to properly and fully fund the social service agencies and not-for-profits doing so on their behalf.
In his tour of Chicago communities at the end of his 22 years in office, Mayor Richard Daley made a planned stop at Welles Park where neighbors, business owners, and community organizations were invited to meet with him. It gave us the opportunity to thank him for the capital fund support we received from his Child Care initiative to build our Concordia Place site in Avondale. In addressing the crowd, Mayor Daley said that our city and our country will be measured by what we do or fail to do for the most vulnerable of our citizens — the children and seniors of our neighborhoods. Indeed.