Invest in Kids Act could reduce inequality, lower crime in Illinois’ big cities

Invest in Kids Act could reduce inequality, lower crime in Illinois’ big cities

A solid education and satisfying employment will go a long way toward reducing crime in Illinois. State lawmakers already have a solution in place, but it needs a boost.

Illinois politicians wring their hands about how to stop the violence in Chicago and elsewhere, but researchers already pointed the way: education and a good job are the best crime prevention strategies.

Violent crime is up across the United States, with Cook County passing 1,000 homicides – the most since 1994 – with a month to go in 2021. The Invest in Kids Act could be part of the long-term solution.

The Invest in Kids Act is a tax credit scholarship that allows students to receive the education of their choosing. The recipients end up in better schools, achieve higher test scores, higher graduation rates and improved employment prospects.

Originally passed in 2017, this act allows individuals and corporations to donate money for private school scholarships and receive a tax credit of 75 cents for every $1 donated. Scholarship money is awarded to families whose income does not exceed 300% of the federal poverty level: a family of four earning $78,600 or less would qualify, but the average is $38,403.

This summer, Gov. J.B. Pritzker attempted to cut the program’s tax credit from 75 cents to 40 cents. State lawmakers rejected his effort and instead extended it through 2023 after it was originally set to sunset in 2022.

Pritzker’s attempt to cut the program is misguided because research shows a good education leads to better employment prospects and less crime.

The Invest in Kids program serves the most disadvantaged youth, with almost 50% of students participating in the program identifying as Black or Hispanic. The scholarships give the lowest income kids access to education of their choosing, whether it’s a private school or a customized course of education.

The results speak volumes. Research by the Urban Institute shows tax credit scholarships raise high school graduation rates, college enrollment and college attainment of recipients — mostly children from low-income households. In Florida, for example, scholarship recipients were 12% more likely to go to college. Those who had received a scholarship from grades eight to 10 were two percentage points more likely to graduate college.

Eighty-nine percent of students at Chicago Public Schools are minorities mostly Black and Hispanic and the public school system is failing them. Seventy-five percent of students at the lowest-performing public elementary schools in Chicago failed to meet standards on state exams. More than 20% of these students scored in the lowest category in reading, meaning they had a difficult time determining the main idea of a persuasive essay or the plot of a short story.

And research has shown how education and jobs improve health outcomes and reduce crime. Even before the pandemic, states with higher unemployment rates had higher crime rates both in terms of higher homicide rates and higher property crime rates, according to data from the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting program.

According to the most recently available data from the American Community Survey, only 26.3% of Black Chicagoans had a college degree or higher when compared to 78.2 % of white Chicago residents before the pandemic. In Chicago, where the homicide rate is highest among Black residents, a small increase in college attainment among Black men would go a long way to improve lives, livelihoods, and reduce racial disparities in health outcomes while also reducing crime. This is because more education leads to higher labor market attachment. And, a stable job reduces the incentive to commit a crime by binding people together in networks of reciprocal social obligations.

If lawmakers are serious about reducing racial disparities and addressing crime in Illinois’ largest cities, they should prioritize permanently extending and expanding the Invest in Kids program.

Thankfully, lawmakers bought time by extending the Invest in Kids program by a year, but the scholarships will be gone by the end of 2023. Making the program permanent would not only count as one of the most progressive achievements of any Illinois legislature a direct transfer of resources and hope to its lowest income residents but also reduce crime in Illinois’ major cities.

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