I returned to my hometown on my birthday, only to spend the trip surrounded by police and politicians rather than loved ones.
In the name of public safety, several members of my family had been locked away in different tiny rooms throughout downtown Springfield, Illinois. My mom was in the emergency room with a severe case of COVID-19, her second visit to the hospital in two weeks. Meanwhile, my nephew was locked up in county jail for a laundry list of offenses, and my grandmother was languishing in a poorly managed nursing home.
Instead of the usual birthday festivities, I sat in a windowless room with a half dozen socially distanced functionaries on the fourth floor of a Central Illinois courthouse, occasionally fiddling with my mask, trying to figure out how to help.
I’d driven twelve hours north from my current home in Mobile, Alabama, to meet with a newly minted task force representing several Illinois agencies and jurisdictions — the police, the state attorney’s office, social workers, and hospital employees — to talk about my family’s numerous crises and how the state had failed us so terribly.
I was angry. We’d sought help from various state or local agencies in some way or another over the last several years, but most of our pleas and complaints were met with half measures or lost in endless mazes of bureaucracy. Now things had taken a turn for the worse — my mom had narrowly avoided dying on the floor of her own home, all because a greedy hospital treating her for COVID had kicked her out too early.
The task force listened to my story and apologized. “Sorry, we’ll do better in the future,” they said. Some of them blamed COVID for ravaging the everyday functioning of the government. Others pointed fingers at specific agencies or the people running them.
All of these explanations contained grains of truth — but they missed the bigger picture at the heart of it all.
The problems plaguing my family stemmed from issues that the American working class everywhere has faced over the last generation: a loss of community, declining work prospects, staggering debt, poor health, addiction, depression, divorce, and suicide. Those problems peaked at the worst possible time: a global pandemic.
The same could be said for the poor health of the body politic in Illinois as a whole. My home state’s well-being has slowly sunk over the last two decades and dragged its capital city’s fortunes down with it.
The COVID-19 crisis exacerbated existing problems and helped sever the safety net that had been rotting for years. Now countless lives were falling through the net and hitting rock bottom. My family is among the fallen.
What’s the Matter With Illinois?
Earlier that morning, I had strolled past Abraham Lincoln’s historic home to find the entire twelve-acre site eerily vacant. Tourists from all over the world once trekked to this four-block-long section of Springfield to visit the modest home that Abe lived in until the presidential election of 1860, a two-story Greek Revival meticulously preserved and restored to appear as if he’d just skipped town to start his new job in DC.
These days, the hotels are empty and the streets so deserted that statues of nineteenth-century historical figures outnumber flesh-and-blood people. As such, this famous section of downtown has come to resemble a Lincoln-themed Potemkin Village; its old-timey cobbled boulevards and attractions like the thirty-foot-tall Abe sculpture waving his stovepipe hat outside the Presidential Library disguise the institutional rot of the city.
As president, Donald Trump loved to take cheap shots at Chicago as a crime-ridden Democrat-controlled hellhole.
“What the hell is going on in Chicago?” was a go-to-line, much to the delight of MAGA-loving rally-goers.
Trump wasn’t wrong that there’s plenty of misery in the Second City. Chicago is a patchwork quilt of inequality where the wealth and resources are concentrated in a few exclusive zip codes along Lake Michigan, which is why urban planner Pete Saunders has described the city as “one-third San Francisco, two-thirds Detroit.”
But what gets left out is the rest of Illinois, which is in precipitous decline regardless of which political party the majority of its residents vote for. The rural towns on Illinois’s southern edge are slowly, bitterly fading away, with life expectancy in Saline County about seventeen years shorter than those living in downtown Chicago.
Likewise, Central Illinois’s once-mighty small and midsize industrial cities are almost entirely Detroit and almost no San Francisco. Some neighborhoods are already ghost towns, full of decrepit, vacant, or uninhabitable storefronts or homes. Springfield, Peoria, and Rockford — the forgotten borderlands of the country’s Rust Belt region — feel particularly hollowed out. All are losing their populations at alarming rates. Worse, each city made CBS News’ “50 Most Dangerous Cities in America” list last year, with the latter two surpassing Chicago in terms of violent crime rate.
It wasn’t always this way. Life here used to be pretty good.
I remember my time growing up in Springfield rather fondly, especially with our sixteenth president serving as a kind of civic lodestone, his invisible presence felt everywhere I went. I loved everything Abe. I’d sometimes walk to his historic home after school, took field trips to his boyhood log cabin in nearby New Salem, Illinois, attended Lincoln Elementary School, and read books at Lincoln Library.
On the Fourth of July, naturally, we’d attend LincolnFest, a two-day carnival with games, rides, and parades. The myth that rubbing the worn nose of Abe’s large bronze bust outside his tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery would bring good luck seemed legit back then.
In 2000, the state’s population had grown by nearly a million residents, from 11.4 to 12.4 million from the previous decade, and median household income stood at $46,000 — more than $4,000 above the national average and roughly $71,000 today if adjusted for inflation. When I was growing up, my parents struggled, but their standard of living rose in the ’90s because my dad landed a job as a social worker for the state, which meant joining a strong public-sector union.
But now poverty, unemployment, crime, and drug overdose deaths are all on the rise across downstate Illinois. Not coincidentally, people are bolting. According to the US Census Bureau, Illinois lost 79,000 residents between 2019 to 2020, the state’s most significant population decline since World War II. As a result, Illinois lost a valuable House seat.
Since COVID started wreaking further havoc last year, Springfield’s two biggest industries — state government and tourism — have been hit hard, and the city’s Potemkin facade has slipped even further.
The Land of Lincoln has slowly become a dystopia.
My meeting with the task force was no accident. Two weeks before, I’d desperately played a card that the cynic in me thought might finally draw some attention to my family’s plight — in particular, my mom’s. I called and emailed a host of local and state politicians campaigning a few weeks before an election with an email titled “How the state of Illinois has failed my family.”
I let them read between the lines: Would you, Joe Q. Public, really want a journalist to get vocal about his mom dying of COVID in her own home because of an inept bureaucracy with an election two weeks away?
The answer was apparently “No,” which is why I was called here and drove a day due north from my home in Alabama’s Gulf Coast.
I didn’t recount my family’s unabridged story to the task force, just the most relevant details.
My grandmother Maxine’s problem was directly institutional — she simply tried to live with a roof over her head while suffering from dementia. In 2016, the assisted care facility she lived in for years evicted her because of her diminished mental capacity and shipped her off to one of the few places in Springfield that would accept her on a small, fixed income.
That place, now Aperion Care — then Mosaic of Springfield — is a shoddy for-profit nursing home, one of 132 in Illinois flagged by the government for having a history of serious quality issues. Management has been fined $217,000 over the last three years, a portion of the $7.13 million paid out by 708 facilities inspected by the state, according to ProPublica.
Of the dozens of complaints lodged against the Mosaic to the Illinois Department of Health, one of them was mine. I objected to the appalling conditions there — the rats, the roaches, the lack of showers, and the staff’s neglect of residents.
Their most egregious failure was not changing my grandmother’s diet to soft foods after a fall left her weak and hurt. She was fed what amounts to grade-school cafeteria food — hot dogs and mounds of mashed potatoes — even after members of my family made multiple complaints. Already petite when she was admitted, she stopped eating, dropped twelve pounds, and grew much weaker. A staff member put her in hospice to slip away after the facility effectively starved her.
The Illinois Department of Health sent an inspector after my official complaint, and the facility finally took her out of the hospice and changed my grandmother’s diet. She eventually recovered. But the facility is still incredibly poorly run. As of April 21, it’s been on a federal list of poorly performing nursing homes for twenty-six straight months.
My widowed mother, Janice — who is disabled due to a life-altering stroke — also almost died due to a fucked-up profit-first health care system. Last winter, she contracted COVID-19 through the home health aide who’d been provided by an elderly services agency. That aide had been hospitalized, but the agency didn’t send a replacement, and my mom’s case of coronavirus grew worse while she fended for herself.
Concerned, I called for an ambulance from my home in the Gulf Coast a thousand miles away. The paramedics took her to the same COVID hospital ward where her part-time helper was being treated.
There, her condition began to stabilize. But the hospital administration forced her to go home after five days, even though she was still suffering from severe coronavirus symptoms. Why? According to a staff member at the hospital, it was the insurance company that sent her home. (“It’s not really our decision.”)
A day after my mom returned home, I called 911 for a wellness check after I couldn’t get her on the phone. An officer found her on the floor — deathly ill, covered in her own vomit and urine, and too weak to move. She was immediately brought back to the ER for resuscitation.
She survived, but my mom would return to a house in shambles. During her second stint in the hospital, my twenty-one-year-old nephew and a few of his friends violated a court-mandated order of protection for the umpteenth time by breaking into my mom’s house. They ransacked and stole almost everything valuable, including her clothes and cellphone.
This wasn’t exactly a surprise. He’d been siphoning off most of my mom’s money over the past three years, almost $15,000 worth. He did so covertly, by nabbing her and my deceased father’s debit cards and extracting their savings into Venmo accounts. His crew had also been quietly using my mom’s unused garage as a small-time crime lair. There, they cooked meth and sold it, along with cocaine and opioids robbed from a local hospital. My nephew was also running a counterfeiting ring there, using a combination of fake checks and stolen identities.
My brother and I found drug paraphernalia, a handful of stolen driver’s licenses, and illicit guns while riffling through his belongings. Worst of all, he was accused of violence against women, beating girlfriends and sexually assaulting a girl at a party in the garage.
These crimes had been well-documented and the proper authorities alerted. We’d taken photos of evidence and called the police and social workers at least a dozen times. But since he’s turned eighteen, what they’ve offered us is the equivalent of a collective shrug and lectures about personal responsibility. Sometimes he’d be arrested but would be released the next day with a slap on the wrist and inevitably would go back to crime — often on the same day.
I’d met with the local state’s attorney’s office and the Illinois Department of Aging in early 2020, and they promised me they’d work with the police on an investigation of my nephew and help my mother on what was a clear case of elder abuse and financial exploitation. A year later, that had gone nowhere, and they stopped returning my phone calls.
That is, until my strongly worded email finally got a response from a chief of staff in the upper reaches of state government. “You really rattled some chains,” a member of the task force told me. Even so, that impact was limited.
On my birthday, I called the police to inform them of the break-in of my mom’s house and showed an officer a tree branch wedged into the back window. Someone had pried it open — clear evidence of illegal entry — but the officer refused to take a police report.
“I’ve been called over here so many times, it’s sad,” a cop told me. “I’ve told your mom she needs to do something.”
I called them again in late August to report that my nephew had returned to my mom’s house demanding she let him crash there — a violation of the order of protection my brother and I filed on her behalf. This time, the police didn’t even bother showing up.
Death by a Thousand Cuts
No one will find a single smoking gun responsible for Illinois’s slow death. Globalization and corporate outsourcing accelerated over the last generation and stripped the state of an estimated three hundred thousand factory and manufacturing workers since 2000. Meanwhile, the bulk of the farming industry using Illinois’s rich soil has likewise been consolidated into the hands of a few big corporate interests.
Everyone loves a good villain (just ask Trump), and there’s no shortage of them here. The usual suspects for the fleecing of the state are the murderers’ row of incompetent or just-plain-corrupt executives, Republicans and Democrats alike. They’ve certainly played a starring role.
Jim Edgar, a milquetoast conservative who once endorsed Rudy Giuliani for president, got the ball rolling for the state’s financial woes back in 1994. That’s when he signed a fifty-year plan to restore Illinois’s retirement systems to solvency through gradually escalating investments by taxpayers. The so-called “Edgar Ramp” kicked $20 billion in unfunded pension mandates down the road to today, where the net pension liability now totals $317 billion, the highest in the nation.
The law was so bad that the SEC filed a complaint against the state in March 2013, saying the Edgar Ramp shifted “costs to the future and, as a result, created significant financial stress and risks for the state.”
Edgar is forgotten today because he was overshadowed by his shady successor, George Ryan, a Republican governor weakened by a scandal in which state employees took bribes in return for issuing driver’s licenses to unqualified applicants. He served six and a half years in prison and was released in 2013.
Rod Blagojevich promised reform in the wake of Ryan’s scandal, but the well-coiffed but buffoonish Chicago Democrat left in disgrace after an FBI arrest and subsequent impeachment trial for corruption, most famously by trying to trade Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat for personal gain in 2008. “I’ve got this thing and it’s fucking golden, and I’m just not giving it up for fuckin’ nothing,” the FBI recorded him saying on a wiretap.
Blago was no big loss, considering that his administration also dabbled in the budget dark arts, with gimmicks like pension bond sales that meant more borrowing from future obligations to pay today’s bills.
It fell to Pat Quinn, his lieutenant governor, to clean up the mess. Quinn’s solution, beyond an unpopular 67 percent increase in the state income tax, was to sign the Video Gaming Act of 2009, which legalized video gambling and authorized tens of thousands of slot and poker machines.
Despite his campaign pledge — made in 2002 and repeated in 2006 — to oppose any large-scale expansion of gambling in our state, he flip-flopped on the issue. Doing so, Quinn said, would generate $300 million a year to fund another program called “Illinois Jobs Now!” But within months, the state began borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars and eventually racked up more than $10 billion in new debt.
A recent expansion of the gambling bill green-lit casinos and sports betting to the thirty thousand video slot and poker machines that operate in Illinois, more than any other state in the country. These days, Illinois is the Las Vegas of the Midwest — without any of the glitz or glamour. The omnipresence of gambling at gas stations, bars, and everywhere you turn in downstate Illinois has made it incredibly easy for poor people to become addicted to this cruel, regressive tax. My brother’s friend Ryan has gambled away about $60,000 on slot machines over the last decade and has spent much of those years living in his parents’ basement, despite being a thirty-nine-year-old single father.
In his 2014 bid for governor, Bruce Rauner — Rahm Emanuel’s wine club buddy — billed himself as the no-nonsense alternative to Quinn and Mike Madigan, the longtime Democratic House Speaker who resigned earlier this year due to a corruption scandal.
What he turned out to be was a harbinger of Trump. Rauner was a billionaire businessman cosplaying as a man of the people in leather jackets and flannel shirts who used his lack of political experience as a bludgeon, promising to shake things up and make government work like a business.
Unfortunately, that threat came true, and as Illinois’s CEO, he tried to unilaterally cut taxes and handicap public-sector unions. When state Democrats didn’t play ball, he refused to sign a budget for years, causing the state government to grind to a halt — devastating public universities, social service agencies, and Springfield itself.
The media began leering at Illinois’s struggles during the Rauner years, at the height of the state’s financial crisis about five years ago. That’s when a steady trickle of outlets began writing Illinois’s obituary. It’s “America’s Most Messed Up State,” declared CNN in 2016. It’s “something like a banana republic,” claimed Politico, and the National Review named Rauner the worst Republican governor in America.
Those articles cited the state’s broken politics and finances: two-plus years without an approved budget, billions of dollars in unpaid bills, and a bond rating that hovered near junk status.
What they failed to convey is how much of the fiscal malfeasance landed on those outside the statehouse, breaking the back of the poor and working class.
When money is tight, the logic of capitalism demands austerity. In Illinois, that meant politicians first cut social services. The downsizing affected everything from mental health care and Meals on Wheels to domestic violence support centers.
In total, the state slashed spending on services by 23 percent since 2000, a salient point that Governor JB Pritzker didn’t shy away from in his February State of the State speech:
Twenty years ago, Illinois had about 30 percent more employees than it does today . . . 40 percent more Illinois State Police to protect the 58,000 square miles of our state. Our EPA had nearly 60 percent more people protecting our air and water. And the state government’s share of spending on education has steadily dropped to the lowest in the nation — leading your cities and your counties and your school districts to impose suffocatingly high property taxes to maintain quality public education. . . . Government cannot be bloated, but it must have the resources to provide for the needs of our state’s residents.
To his credit, Pritzker has been a surprisingly reasonable governor — to the point of reaching into his own deep coffers to fund a campaign for the Fair Tax Amendment. Had the tax passed last November, it would have altered the state constitution so that legislators could legally implement a graduated tax, rather than deal with a flat one. Yet Illinois’s richest man, Citadel CEO Ken Griffin, spent $54 million of his own cash to oppose the amendment and successfully convince voters to say no as well.
If there’s a bright spot, it’s that Illinois financial prospects have improved somewhat in 2021. But that’s largely thanks to the state receiving $8.1 billion in federal COVID-19 relief money. It’s more of a short-term booster shot than a cure.
The bottom line is that the fundamentals of what ails Illinois remain unchanged.
Nowhere to Go
It’s no coincidence that Barack Obama chose the reconstructed Old State Capitol in downtown Springfield as the site for his 2007 announcement that he was running for president.
Lincoln walked its halls as a state representative, and he delivered his iconic “House Divided” speech in 1858. Obama — always hyperaware of his own image and legacy — was sending a distinct message: he was following in Lincoln’s footsteps.
As such, he had lofty words for Springfield in his declaration speech. “It was here, in Springfield, where north, south, east, and west come together that I was reminded of the essential decency of the American people — where I came to believe that through this decency, we can build a more hopeful America,” Obama said.
There was a big enthusiastic crowd of Springfieldians there to watch Obama make history and — like Lincoln — leave Springfield, never to return.
These days, the only part of old Springfield that’s flush with humanity — aside from the legal cannabis store — is “Tent City.” That’s the nickname for a ragged encampment of homeless people that sprung up in a grassy lot outside the eighty-bed Salvation Army treatment center that closed last September. It’s a few blocks from the Old State Capitol building and, ironically enough, a stone’s throw from the Springfield Housing Authority.
I walked there after exiting the task force meeting on the hunch that I might find my nephew there. As it turns out, he’d just been released from jail and had nowhere to go. A lot of people have nowhere to go these days.
Multiple plans for homeless shelters in Springfield have fallen by the wayside over the past decade and a half, and this region ranks last in the state in terms of landing federal homeless funds due to local agency dysfunction. When the city finally took action last fall, it wasn’t out of a sudden burst of kindness. It was because Tent City had ballooned to an unmanageable size and bouts of violence erupted there, including a stabbing.
The makeshift dwellings were razed, and some lucky souls were stuffed into a warming facility over the winter. Alas, that was only a temporary solution. Since April, dozens of men and women have once again pitched their tents outside, and there’s no end in sight.
“It’s a constant reminder of our failure to this point,” Sangamon County Board chairman Andy Van Meter told the Illinois Times.
These days, it’s hard not to see that failure everywhere.