Let me begin with an introduction for readers outside of Illinois. In the last election, a political novice but a successful businessman, Bruce Rauner, was elected as the state’s new governor. One former Illinois governor is in prison, another was recently released – both for corruption. The state government is perceived as inefficient and crooked. The numbers are not good, either. People argue about how big the debt is, but nobody questions that it is too big; Illinois has the worst credit rating among all states in the nation. Billboards in Chicago encourage businesses to move to Indiana.
Bruce Rauner has promised to reverse this down spin. Preparing to take office in January, the governor-elect has turned to Illinoisans for ideas. People providing ideas are asked to allocate them to one of the 88 state agencies. The Department of Aging, being the first on the list, caught my attention, because with me being above 60, aging is my great concern.
My first reflection was that even the best-run Department of Aging cannot stop or, even better, reverse my aging. Furthermore, a long time ago I knew when my senior years would come. I had decades to save money and make arrangements in securing for myself decent living conditions in retirement. I realize that if I miscalculate, in my senior years I might need to accept a lower standard of living than I enjoy now. Lastly, if I ever would need to ask for help from the Department of Aging, I would see it as a humiliating acknowledgment of my failure in securing my well-being at my old age, what I consider as my sole responsibility.
It is not how the Department of Aging sees its mission, as in the opening statement on its website one can read that it is in “administering quality and culturally appropriate programs that promote partnerships and encourage independence, dignity, and quality of life” for older Illinoisans. The difference is in taking away the – obvious to me – embarrassment of reaching for government support and replacing it with the pride of getting something that one is entitled to. In this difference there is encompassed the essence of the problems that Illinois faces; it is in the question of what the role of government is. Is it in facilitating individuals to become prosperous and self-sufficient by their own actions, or is it in building a network of government institutions guaranteeing everyone “dignity and quality of life”?
The latter seems to be the model of government practiced in Illinois. It seems to be the opposite to the ideal of government as envisioned at the origins of the United States and practiced up to about one hundred years ago, when gradually government began taking upon itself the ever-expanding obligations of providing “dignity and quality of life” for everyone. Before that, government was perceived as securing law and order, guaranteeing everyone the same chances to prosper. In that approach, the government role was in preserving the individual’s unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Behind this lofty language is the sobering truth best described by Benjamin Franklin that “the U.S. Constitution doesn’t guarantee happiness, only the pursuit of it. You have to catch up with it.” The reality was that those who caught up with it became rich, those who did not – poor. Those unlucky poor were left to the mercy of the charity of others. It was perceived as unjust and undignified, as for many that misfortune was not their fault; it was due to sickness, accidents or the wrongdoing of others. From there, it was just one step to get government involved in assisting those unfortunate.
Once started, it could only grow. For example, the $1.12 billion budget (2014) of the Department of Aging means an average $502 spent per year for every Illinoisan older than 60. Yes, older than 60, because this is the age that qualifies for help from the Department of Aging. Presently 17.3% of the inhabitants of Illinois are 60 or older. Within the next fifteen years it will be reaching 25%, almost a 50% increase. The Rauner administration will need to find money to finance the expected 50% increase in the needs of the Department of Aging. Or, it may take a different approach; it can revitalize the economy so people will make enough money to become self-sufficient in their advanced years. Also, it can open opportunities for older people to get help in the most dignified way, by finding a job. Lastly, it can tell Illinoisans the sad truth that “dignity and quality of life” never will and never can come from the government handouts; they can only come from one’s own work.
With this approach the Department of Aging could be completely eliminated, as most old people would not need it. Those very few needing assistance with housing could get it from the Illinois Housing Development Authority; those needing medical or living assistance could get it from the departments of Healthcare and Family Services or Human Services. The general idea is that the government should shift from providing “dignity and quality of life” into enabling and encouraging people to take care of their affairs themselves, so fewer of them would need and seek government assistance.
Are Illinoisans ready to accept this concept of working more and expecting less from the government? I doubt it. My conclusion is based on the result of the minimum wage referendum, where almost exactly two-thirds of Illinois voters supported increasing the minimum wage from the current $8.25 to $10.00. The argument for an increased minimum wage was that a person working full time should earn a living wage. The fallacy of this argument is that neither the current nor proposed minimum wage suffices to support a family; the real living salary starts around double the minimum wage.
The legal minimum wage is a reference point for unskilled workers and in practice should apply mostly for beginners and seasonal workers. Only unqualified workers with a poor work ethic should stay on the minimum wage for a prolonged time; everybody else should advance. Hence, the real objective is not whether the minimum wage is one dollar higher or lower, it is in having a prevailing majority of workers making at least double the minimum wage. However, with the economy in stagnation, as in Illinois, many workers had no choice but to accept jobs paying minimum wage or not much above it. The only way out of it is by stimulating the economy. The government decree increasing the minimum wage arbitrarily, without a revitalization of the economy, will only cause inflation; people will be paid more, but each dollar earned will be worth less. Two-thirds of Illinois voters do not get it.
By electing Bruce Rauner, Illinois voters recognized the need for reforms. They are about to get a rude awakening to the painful truth that the near-bankruptcy of the state is not caused by a group of bad politicians. It is a logical consequence of the will of the majority of Illinoisans wanting the state government to maintain a system of regulations and government agencies guaranteeing “dignity and quality of life” for everyone. This concept of a complex government breeds corruption. It also gives the masses an illusion that, in exchange for some petty taxes now, in the future almost everyone will get government assistance far exceeding his or her contribution. This craftiness of a dodger eventually leads to too many takers and too few contributors. It leads to insolvency, exactly where Illinois is now.
Bruce Rauner succeeded in convincing Illinoisans that he can make Illinois great again. Judging from the minimum wage referendum, about two-thirds of the people in Illinois still did not get it that it can be done only by government doing less, not more. It can be done only by government making it easier to get prosperous for those who want to work harder and take a risk. And, by government giving away less to those who are not as much entrepreneurial in taking care of their own affairs. By winning the election, Bruce Rauner opened the doors to a better Illinois. The steep stairs up have just begun.
A version of this text was published by Huffington Post