by Doug Scofield
When Caroline Banks drops off her 8-month-old granddaughter, Aria, in the morning at The Salvation Army child care center at the Simpson Academy for Young Women, she feels like she is leaving her with family.
“She’s always happy, and she has a teacher, Abby, she is particularly close to, so it’s like being at home,” Banks said.
Aria is one of about 83,000 children in Cook County served by the Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP), which provides a subsidy from the State of Illinois to make child care more affordable to low-income parents throughout the state.
The center provides more than child care, helping with day-to-day necessities like diapers, wipes and extra milk. Extra clothes are often provided when needed. And Banks feels like Aria is happy and thriving at the center.
“They get everything they need. The babies are comfortable and happy. I think my granddaughter is advanced — she’s crawling, pulling up, she listens to music and likes music. She’s doing great for her age.”
Caroline’s daughter, Ilena, is Aria’s mom and is attending high school at Simpson Academy.
“Being a mom at a young age, she wouldn’t be able to finish school without it. She wants to continue her education and go to college. That wouldn’t be an option if she didn’t have child care,” Banks said.
About 50,000 families in Cook County participated in CCAP in 2013, according to an Illinois Action for Children report. But thousands of families have spent the past few months facing very real worries about what they will do if government-subsidized day care disappears or becomes more expensive, due to a nearly $300 funding million funding shortfall in CCAP.
According to the Illinois Department of Human Services, which administers the program, delays in payments to child care centers began in January. As legislators and newly elected Governor Bruce Rauner debated funding alternatives and traded blame about the shortfall, the program continued to run out of money. The Department of Human Services even instituted a hotline for providers to call with regular updates on the status of funding.
The crisis is so severe that as this issue of StreetWise was going to press, Governor Rauner signed a short-term budget agreement passed by the legislature that would help to fill the child care funding gap. The compromise measure would take about $1.3 billion from funds set aside for special purposes such as road construction and direct them to immediate budget needs such as CCAP. Along with an overall budget cut of 2.25 percent from most parts of state government, the deal may provide enough money to ease the child care crisis – for now.
Still, the last-minute legislative compromise in Springfield leaves thousands of Illinois families in a state of uncertainty about the future. The CCAP funding shortfall highlights the political conflict that Illinois is facing about the state budget, spending priorities and how – or whether — to fund critical services like child care.
After 12 years of Democratic governors, Republican governor Bruce Rauner has introduced his first budget – one that dramatically changes the direction of state government. Rauner has declared his opposition to new tax increases and has proposed deep cuts in a wide array of social service programs. Democratic legislative leaders are opposing Rauner’s proposed budget and promoting an array of potential tax increases and new revenue sources. The current budget stalemate about revenue sources and spending priorities means working parents who depend on programs like CCAP might be waiting quite a while before they know the long-term fate of the child care centers or other vital state services they depend on every day.
Advocates for social service programs and providers of services who are strongly opposed to Rauner’s proposed budget have been organizing rallies, town hall meetings and picketing around the state to highlight the need to fully fund programs like the Child Care Assistance Program.
On March 16 in Chicago at an Illinois Senate appropriations committee hearing on the budget of the Department of Human Services, groups including Access Living, which advocates for persons with disabilities, and Deborah’s Place, which advocates on housing and workplace issues, testified to protest Rauner’s proposed cuts. The hearing was packed with people who would be affected by the cuts. The line of people waiting to get into the hearing – many in wheelchairs – clogged the lobby of the Michael Bilandic building downtown.
On March 20th, Access Living hosted an informational town hall meeting at its north side offices to highlight consequences they called “shameful” for persons with disabilities if Rauner’s budget is approved.
Adam Ballard, Advocacy Manager for Access Living, told a crowded room that just one of a wide range of cuts was the potential elimination of as many as one-third of personal attendants – a total of 10,000 – for people with disabilities.
“Billionaire Bruce wants to run state government like a business, but short-term savings in this budget means long-term financial misery for the state,” Ballard said, highlighting the much higher cost to the state when persons with disabilities or the elderly are forced into nursing homes instead of being able to care for themselves in their homes.
As other Access Living officials detailed proposed budget cuts, they led the room in chants of “when they say cut back, we say fight back.”
Democratic State Representative Will Guzzardi spoke at the meeting and said the budget choice facing Illinois is very straightforward.
“There are two clear choices when it comes to this budget. Bruce Rauner and his friends can finally pay their fair share in taxes, or we cut services to people who need them,” Guzzardi said to cheers from those attending.
While many advocates in Chicago and across the state are posing the budget debate as a clear choice between a wealthy governor who opposes tax increases and Democratic legislators who want to protect needed programs, Rauner has a different view of why the Child Care Assistance Program is threatened, and of the overall budget challenges facing Illinois.
He directs blame at former Governor Pat Quinn and Democrats who control the Illinois State Legislature for under-funding CCAP last May. The budget Governor Quinn signed into law did not provide enough funding for CCAP for the entire year. Many Democratic leaders hoped the temporary state income tax increase would be extended and provide funding for the program.
In response to questions about the future of CCAP, Rauner’s office has regularly directed responsibility toward Democrats in Springfield.
“The Child Care Assistance Program is out of money because majority party legislators knowingly voted for a budget that intentionally underfunded Child Care and left our state with a $1.6 billion hole. Governor Rauner didn’t create this crisis, but he is committed to solving it without raising taxes on hard-working families and without irresponsible borrowing,” Rauner spokesperson Catherine Kelly said in a statement.
But for advocates and providers, the problem is urgent. Without new state revenue sources, many say the consequences for the people they serve will be virtually unprecedented.
A coalition of labor unions, community groups, social service agencies and faith-based organizations sponsored a rally in Springfield on March 11 that filled the state capitol building with about 1,500 protesters speaking out against the proposed budget.
“We are now sitting around the table with people who’ve been through this budget process now for the sixth or seventh time. The budget cuts go to the heart of really vital services that affect real people,” Nathan Ryan of Grassroots Illinois Action said.
Grassroots Illinois Action, a political advocacy group backed by community and labor organizations, participated in the Springfield rally and helped organize a protest against Rauner’s budget in late February.
At the Chicago rally, Sonia Acuna, who works at McDonalds and has two daughters, spoke out against the funding shortfall for child care programs in Illinois.
“We depend on child care to be able to go to work and take care of our families. But right now I can’t even afford child care for my own daughter, so I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for other parents if Gov. Rauner increases our co-pays or other costs,” Acuna said.
Rauner has emphasized that his proposed budget does include funding increases in areas like early childhood education programs. Still, it includes significant cuts in funding for programs like Medicaid, drug and alcohol abuse prevention and counseling, arts funding and domestic violence programs.
Maria Whelan, Executive Director of Illinois Action for Children, an advocacy group that also administers CCAP programs in Cook County, cautioned that even if funding for the program is restored, many families in Illinois could still face significant hardships under Rauner’s proposed budget.
“We know, however, that children and families do not exist in a vacuum. Children in early care and education settings may, for example, have a mother who is being helped by domestic violence victim services. They may have a parent who is participating in a drug or alcohol treatment program. They may have an older sibling who participates in afterschool programs. These children, their families, and many others will be significantly impacted by the drastic cuts proposed in the Governor’s budget,” Whelan said.
Democratic legislative leaders are currently promoting a wide range of revenue proposals that they believe would allow Rauner to restore funding to CCAP and avoid the other program cuts he has proposed. Their proposals include extending the temporary state income tax increase. In 2011, Illinois increased the state income tax from 3 percent to 5 percent. The increase was allowed to rollback this year to 3.75 percent, costing the state about $4 billion in revenue and creating a significant budget shortfall.
Other revenue proposals include expanding casino gambling, changing the constitution to allow for a graduated income tax so that wealthy Illinoisans can be taxed at a higher rate, eliminating some current corporate tax breaks or instituting new taxes on items like satellite television service or on financial transactions.
Ryan of Grassroots Illinois Action says his coalition believes the right answer is higher taxes on wealthier Illinois residents.
“Instead of budget cuts that affect vital services, we should be looking at a millionaires’ tax. This model is broken, and we need a new way of doing budgets,” Ryan said.
While Rauner and Democratic leaders debate in Springfield, and while advocates march and rally, working parents and grandparents like Caroline Banks continue to count on child care, and are glad they can rely on centers like the one provided by The Salvation Army.
Aria is at the center from the start of school at 7:30 a.m. to when her mother finishes classes at 3:20 p.m. The center has book days and encourages reading, and also provides classes on parenting skills and nutrition.
“It’s a nice, bright, happy place. It’s filled with color. With everything this center provides, they have no excuse not to finish school. It’s just a great resource that we count on. I don’t know what we would do without it. About all I could do is pray,” Banks said.