Broken promises threaten to destabilize childcare agencies – and low-income families

Childcare assistance to low-income families could be cut to the bone under the governor's proposed state budget.

Photo by Jonathan Gibby

Childcare assistance to low-income families could be cut to the bone under the governor's proposed state budget.

By cutting childcare assistance so drastically that many suspect his administration of seeking to dismantle the program, Gov. Bruce Rauner is essentially breaking two promises – one made decades ago by the state, another made last year by Rauner himself.

Take the governor first. As a candidate last year, he promised to expand early learning programs. His proposed budget earlier this year increased spending on early learning programs by $25 million.

Now he’s cutting childcare assistance by over $100 million, according to a Chicago Tribune story which offers the first estimate of cost savings for an emergency rule issued June 30. That rule lowered the income eligibility for families to qualify for assistance from 185 percent of poverty to just 50 percent.

Advocates estimate that will eliminate up to 90 percent of the families that would have previously qualified. It also eliminates a crucial revenue stream for early childhood education agencies, which get as much as 40 percent of their funding from the childcare assistance program.

Longstanding early childhood programs “are facing a real crisis,” said Christine Nicpon of the Latino Policy Forum. The new rule “is cutting them off at their knees.”

It’s an issue for low-income families across the state, but particularly for Latino families, where a lack of facilities means only one-third of eligible families are enrolled in preschool programs, according to LPF.

On the Southwest Side, Metropolitan Family Services reports that both longstanding and new early childhood centers are threatened by the cuts. Two Chicago Lawn centers which have served generations may have to consider consolidation, and a new Learning and Wellness Center serving West Englewood and New City will be destabilized as it transitions from startup funding.

These are more than childcare centers: they are early learning programs, staffed by certified teachers using a high-quality curriculum and providing a range of services designed to prepare children to succeed in school.

MFS reports they recently opened enrollment to replace children moving on to kindergarten, and only one child qualified. The agency estimates the hit from the new rule to the existing centers will be $60,000 in July and August and $1.38 million for fiscal year 2016.

The cuts also threaten to stall the opening of a new early learning center which would serve Gage Park and Brighton Park, which has the distinction of being listed in a recent survey as the community with the highest gap in terms of access to early childhood programs in the city. Rauner’s emergency rule would reduce funding for the new center by 37 percent, MFS estimates.

“We can’t move forward with groundbreaking and construction until we have the funding in place,” said Ann Pinkney of MFS. “It wouldn’t be sustainable, and it wouldn’t be responsible.”

Early childhood education has proven to be incredibly cost-effective in improving educational achievement and reducing a range of social ills.  So, Gov. Rauner, good for you for supporting its expansion. But don’t give with one hand and take with the other.

The other promise being broken was implicit when the state implemented welfare reform in the 1990s, setting time limits on families’ ability to get public aid.  A strong bipartisan consensus backed the idea that childcare assistance was a crucial support to allow families to survive in low-wage jobs and eventually to rise above poverty.

The childcare assistance program was passed with Republican sponsors by a Republican-majority State Senate and signed by a Republican governor.  And it was recognized as one of the best in the nation.

The emergency rule would end that. It limits new enrollees to those categories required by the federal government: teen parents, families on TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), families with disabled children, and families earning less than 50 percent of the poverty level. That knocks out the vast majority of the working poor.

According to Nicpon, a single mother with two children and a minimum-wage job would be ineligible if she worked more than 20 hours a week.

The rule also increases co-pays for the nearly-destitute families left in the program, and it adds a number of onerous and intrusive requirements which seem designed to prevent families from participating.  One example: it requires families to pursue child support collection from absent parents, which could require victims of domestic violence to reveal their location to their abusers.

It makes it that much harder for families to make ends meet. It makes it challenging to enroll a child in a half-day preschool program which can no longer cover the rest of the day. Beyond that, it raises concerns about the safety of children if their parent has to work and has no childcare options.  Some parents (and nearly all participants in the childcare program are single parents) will decide they have to give up their jobs.

On Wednesday, in response to the crisis created by the new rule, the State Senate passed a bill barring the Department of Human Services from changing eligibility standards for the childcare program through an emergency rule. That bill does not appear to be retroactive, however.

On August 11, the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, the legislative committee that reviews rule changes, will hold a hearing on the emergency rule.

The committee will consider a complaint filed by five social service and advocacy groups. They charge the emergency rule procedure was used to set policy without legislative input and public debate, and with “disregard for the health, safety, and welfare of Illinois citizens.”

They’re calling on DHS to withdraw the rule, or for the Joint Committee to overturn it.

“An emergency rule is supposed to solve an emergency, not create an emergency,” said Andy Wade of MFS.