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Health Effects

Life-or-Death Budget Fights

A Chicago-based activist who has overcome mental health challenges is helping to lead a battle for moral tax and spending policies at the state and federal levels.

Research & Commentary
April 26, 2017

by Sam Wickham

I grew up with mental illness. The first time I tried to kill myself I was 10 years old. Finally, after 34 years, I got the medication and community support my poor brain so badly needed. That’s what the stigma surrounding mental illness and that bootstrap mentality did to me—it made me wait more than three decades before I got help.

Now I am leading. I am doing the work that I always wanted to do but I just couldn’t do. I couldn’t handle the follow through. I couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t do the things that need to be done every day to do this work. But now I can. I am organizing to build a world where no one else needs to wait three decades to get treatment.

One of the most important pieces of this work to me is budgets. Budget cuts got me into this work. I met with ONE Northside when we were trying to keep my mental health center open in the face of massive budget cuts. It wouldn’t have only affected me. It would have affected 10,000 people.

I am not in this budget work because it’s trendy because I am not trendy. I’m in this work because I’m fighting for my life and that of my community.

Those people suffering from mental illness and drug addictions, those are the people I’m fighting for. We need budgets here in D.C. and back home that reflect our humanity. The federal budget proposed by Trump is an immoral document.

[pullquote]I am organizing to build a world where no one else needs to wait three decades to get treatment.[/pullquote]

The national level budget fight reminds me a lot of the fight back in Illinois. We’ve had our very own billionaire governor and for the past two years we haven’t had a budget at all. And the people at the top, both Democrats and Republicans, they don’t care.

They’re just playing a game with us. They’re choosing corporations over the people of Illinois because they’re not raising the revenue to meet our budgetary needs.

So here’s our big idea: a budget is not just a piece of paper with a bunch of numbers. A budget is a moral agreement between a government and its people. It shapes the conversations in our communities. And it needs to be a two-way conversation because it affects all of our lives.

Unfortunately now it’s being treated as a piece of propaganda because it speaks to those who deserve help and investment in their lives. Who is worthy of treatment and attention? Who is thrown under the bus and ignored? Who disappears? Should the 1% and big corporations get huge tax breaks? Or should we the people have fully funded services?

[pullquote]I refuse to accept a situation where Trump and his Wall Street cronies are lining their pockets.[/pullquote]

So we made our own budget in Illinois to bring in more than $20 billion by taxing corporations and the rich. The 1% must pay their fair share.

We want to close tax loopholes, introduce a progressive income tax, and put a tax on financial trading. We built a big bold platform that is all about our values, all about what government can do for us. Two of the things we’re demanding are universal healthcare and fully funded services.

And we’re not taking any of this lying down. We’re going into action. Next month in Illinois we’re going to march 200 miles from Chicago to Springfield, our state capital, to demand that legislators pass our budget.

I refuse to accept a situation where Trump and his Wall Street cronies are lining their pockets.

I also refuse to just sit by while generations of kids and adults with mental illness like me are being ignored by their own governments.

Sam Wickham, an activist with ONE Northside and Fair Economy Illinois, delivered this speech at the People’s Action Founding Convention in Washington, D.C., on April 24.

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