Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Solving the Vanishing Voter Mystery

by Shawn Healy, Resident Scholar

Chicago’s voter registration rolls sank to their lowest level in the post-World War II era, according to Monday’s report from the Chicago Board of Elections. Clearly this doesn’t bode well for participation in next month's primary.

Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown dissected these figures with local Election Commissioners Chairman Langdon Neal, surmising that the pending March 20th primary is a "low-interest election" for Chicagoans given the city’s deep-blue Democratic hue and a contested presidential nomination process relegated to Republican contenders. Their point that the city’s population is declining and voter registration lists have been subsequently scrubbed is also spot on.

Neal and Brown agree that voters also feel disconnected from the political process, but are at a loss in explaining its root cause. I believe this disconnect is a product of two deficiencies: one related to voter registration itself, and the other, our failure to prepare young people for their roles as citizens in a democracy through our formal education system.

Illinois residents cannot register to vote at frequently-visited facilities like schools, college campuses, and hospitals. Moreover, Illinois does not allow for Election Day registration like neighboring states who regularly lead the nation in voter turnout (Minnesota, formerly Wisconsin). In order to vote on March 20th, residents must register by next Tuesday, February 21st.

Even more important, however, is the general lack of preparation for participation in the democratic process. Two generations ago, civic learning was embedded in schools’ formal curriculum. Three civics courses in high school were standard, one focusing on government institutions, another on current events, and a third on civic engagement. Today, we’re lucky if schools offer a single American government class as the social studies have been squeezed by high-stakes tests that focus solely on math and reading.

Select schools throughout the Chicagoland area have embraced proven civic learning practices, and in the process prepare young people for roles we are all assigned, that of citizens. High-quality civic learning pairs knowledge acquisition with skill development, and leads young people to believe that they can make a difference and that government will respond to their concerns. This formula neutralizes collective apathy, and is among the recipes for civic renewal.

Local and statewide adoption of these practices, coupled with liberalized voter registration laws, would revitalize registration rolls and simultaneously solve the local vanishing voter mystery.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Home Visiting Helps Combat Effects of Toxic Stress in Young Children

Guest blog by Diana Rauner, President, Ounce of Prevention Fund & Gaylord Gieseke, Vice President, Voices for Illinois Children

The number of children at risk for the short and long-term effects of toxic childhood stress is growing dramatically. This was the dismal news highlighted in a policy statement released last month by the American Academy of Pediatrics and in a recent op-ed from New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. Both cite new research that demonstrates that the cumulative effects of growing up in environments replete with violence, parental depression, chaos and other uncertainties can literally alter the healthy, normal development of a young child’s brain. These stressors can impede a child’s capacity to “power down” from the fight or flight reflex, which reduces his ability to manage his temper and emotions or show empathy to others. It can also lead to later drug and alcohol use, obesity, heart disease and even early death.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Voluntary home visiting programs can help young parents learn to nurture and emotionally support their babies during the first 36 months of life and mitigate those environmental risks. Research also shows these programs reduce child abuse and neglect, improve health and education outcomes and reduce reports of parental depression – all key indicators for chronic childhood stress.

The Ounce of Prevention Fund and Voices for Illinois Children have long championed such services for Illinois children. As leaders of the Illinois Early Learning Council’s Home Visiting Taskforce, and in partnership with the McCormick Foundation, we have been at the forefront of efforts to use state and new federal investments to improve and extend the impact of home visiting programs in Illinois.

Today, more than 20,000 children and families in Illinois receive home visiting services. The need, however, is far greater. Estimates are that each year 68,000 young, at-risk children, along with their families, do not have access to services. In the last year the Task Force has helped secure $10 million in funding to enhance Illinois’s home visiting infrastructure and increase access to services.

Home visiting programs work, and are critically needed in Illinois and across the country. We must invest in proven solutions that will render social ills obsolete and support young children in realizing their full potential to grow up happy, healthy and become active contributors to our economy.