Metro-East News

Governor, legislators reach compromise on child care assistance

The governor and state legislators have reached a compromise on state assistance for child care for low-income families.

When the state entered the new fiscal year without a budget, Gov. Bruce Rauner restricted eligibility requirements for a state child care assistance program that pays part of the cost of licensed child care facilities for working parents with low wages.

According to a report from the Economic Policy Institute, an Illinois parent earning minimum wage working full-time would spend more than half his or her income on child care alone without the subsidy, and the parent of an infant would spend as much as $4 out of $5 earned.

The subsidy allowed a parent with two children earning up to $3,098 a month to receive partial assistance paid directly to the child care provider. Parents who lose their jobs were eligible for continued assistance for 90 days of unemployment before losing their subsidy.

With the higher restrictions during the budget crisis, the same parent would have to earn less than $838 a month to qualify for assistance, which some advocates said eliminated 90 percent of the families from the program and child-care providers lost thousands of clients.

For Brenda Crisp, owner of Uni-Pres Kindercottage of East St. Louis, the news was welcome. She said she has had to turn away at least 24 out of 30 clients who applied for assistance.

“This has been the worst experience of all, having to turn people away because of these income guidelines, which were ridiculous,” Crisp said. “Most people didn’t qualify, even if they were making minimum wage.”

Crisp said some of the families ended up leaving the children with relatives, while others tried to work out deals where they assisted at the day care center to help offset the cost. “It’s very difficult because it’s not enough to pay our bills,” she said. “But we were trying to help out some folks who were very desperate, and they might have had to leave their children with people who might be neglectful. We wanted to make sure the children were safe.”

Crisp is a member of the O’Fallon cluster of United Congregations of the Metro-East, which had been lobbying Springfield to find a solution, along with groups such as Children’s Home and Aid and Voices for Illinois Children.

Rauner spokesman Lance Trover announced Monday that a compromise had been reached between the governor’s office and state legislators to lift the restrictions while leaving the new, higher copays intact.

The program had originally offered assistance to families earning up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level, but had been cut to 50 percent under the budget crisis restrictions with increased copays for families. With the new compromise, the limit has been set at 162 percent. That means a single mother with two children would qualify for assistance unless she made more than $2,713 per month.

Trover said the decision was the result of "bipartisan discussions with legislators."

According to Voices for Illinois Children, Gov. Rauner has also agreed to return the income levels to 185 percent or $3,098 per month once a budget deal is in place. The administration will also form a task force to look at the program's stability.

Kie Zelms of United Congregations of the Metro-East said she thinks the compromise is a big success for getting both parties together, but she wishes that they could have found the middle ground earlier.

“We’ve had child care centers close and child care workers laid off. People have lost jobs because they couldn’t get child care,” Zelms said. “While I think it’s a great compromise, if it was possible now, why wasn’t it possible in July? We had to go to being the worst in the nation for child care eligibility.”

A study conducted by the National Women’s Law Center said that while the past year was the third year in a row that families’ access to quality child care improved nationally, Illinois dropped to the lowest salary limit in the nation for child care subsidies while increasing the average copay from $191 to $221 per month for a family of three.

“This is a huge step in the right direction,” Zelms said. “We have leaders that got together with the governor and put their weapons aside and said, ‘We have got to do what’s right for children and families.’”

A bill is scheduled for a vote Tuesday, which is expected to put the compromise into law. Voices for Illinois Children is advocating for it to pass while cheering the compromise between the governor’s office and the legislature. Zelms said it would also protect child care subsidies from emergency rulemaking in the future.

“Overall, the ability of governor and lawmakers to work alongside each other is encouraging in the context of the larger budget fight,” said Emily Miller, policy and advocacy director for VIC. “Voices hopes this negotiation can serve as the framework for making further progress on the many issues impacting Illinois’ children and families.”

Crisp said she also would like to see the bill pass. “We want to make sure all of these parties are accountable for the deal they made today,” she said. “We want to keep them on their toes.”

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald