Child-care chaos

Government waffling on state CCAP program prompts parents to pull out

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By Joe Ward

For 15 years, Ruth Kimble has provided child care to kids in Chicago’s West Side Austin neighborhood, a service which gave kids safe and stimulating supervision while helping parents work or finish school. But upheaval in the state-run program that helps parents afford vital child-care services — called the Child Care Assistance Program, or CCAP — has caused thousands of families to lose access to such services. The reduction in assistance-eligible families has led to hardships for child-care centers and providers, like Kimble, and has led some parents to confront the hard choice of either working or staying home to look after their child.

After Gov. Bruce Rauner drastically reduced the income eligibility level for the program in 2015, Kimble lost a quarter of her 60 clients. Where her business had consisted of 75 percent CCAP families, that dropped to 50 percent in the years after the eligibility change.

“Many of the parents didn’t fit that [new] guideline,” said Kimble, who owns Channing’s Childcare. “Many got relatives and friends to watch the children, but they’re not reliable. They’ll only do it for a while. So, many lost their jobs.”

Though the eligibility levels were recently reinstated to their previous mark of 185 percent of the federal poverty level, child-care providers and advocates say the state isn’t doing enough to fund CCAP or market its availability. The inaction is keeping kids out of day care and parents out of the workforce.

What happened

On July 1, 2015, Rauner implemented new restrictions to CCAP that cut the eligibility level from 185 percent of the federal poverty line to 50 percent and required new copay amounts for program recipients, among other changes. After a bipartisan outcry and a threat from the General Assembly to override the changes, Rauner in fall 2015 changed the eligibility level again, this time raising it to 162 percent of the federal poverty line. But the changes had already caused a massive scrubbing of the CCAP rolls.

In the year following Rauner’s action, over 32,000 fewer children were enrolled in CCAP-assisted day-care services, according to the Illinois Department of Human Services. Nearly 19,000 fewer families received child-care assistance due to the changes. From July 2015 to June 2016, 831 fewer licensed child-care providers received assistance from the state, which has caused providers to make painful choices on how they operate, including accepting fewer low-income parents in favor of those who can pay up front, experts said.

The economic impact of Rauner’s actions cannot yet be reliably measured, but studies show just how much access to quality child care means not only to a child’s development, but also to the parent’s contribution to the economy.

In Illinois, 70 percent of the state’s 627,000 kids under the age of 6 have each parent working, but one-third of parents report having difficulty arranging child care, according to a 2018 study by the Council for a Strong America.

Affordability is an issue, too. Consider that the annual cost of center-based child care for kids 4 and under is between $10,000 and $15,000, or roughly the cost of in-state college tuition. Despite the high cost, only about one-quarter of kids 5 and under, and whose families qualify for CCAP assistance, receive the state aid, according to the study.

Without the help, parents are forgoing schooling or an extra job, or dropping out of the workforce entirely to care for their child, said Theresa Hawley, senior vice president for policy at Illinois Action For Children, an advocacy group.

“There’s a lot of research that shows if parents have good, stable child care, they are better employees,” she said. “The effect on the economy is increased productivity of the workers, less absenteeism, because you have this stable child care and support for the family.”

Where we’re at now

The General Assembly last year passed a budget that included funding for CCAP at the 185 percent threshold. In September, Rauner again changed the eligibility levels for the program, this time reinstating them to the original, 185 percent level that the legislature had budgeted.

There was also good news in last week's state budget plan, the first signed by Rauner. The Service Employees International Union Healthcare in Illinois cheered what it said was a 4.26 percent raise for CCAP workers included in the budget. "Illinois legislators stepped in where Gov. Rauner has failed by passing a budget that includes a raise for child-care providers," said Maricarmen Macias, just one such provider.

Illinois legislators stepped in where Gov. Rauner has failed by passing a budget that includes a raise for child-care providers.
— Maricarmen Macias, a child-care provider

But if the original eligibility has been reinstated and funding preserved, why are only a quarter of the state’s CCAP-eligible families receiving aid? Experts say the state is doing virtually nothing to market that the program has been expanded, and that the governor is doing even less to ensure the program’s future vitality.

As with the federal Affordable Care Act under President Trump, turbulence in the program’s administration and uncertainty about whether it would be maintained have all but dictated a decline in interest and enrollment.

Advocates say that families who were turned away after the eligibility changed haven’t come back because they either found other arrangements, don’t know the eligibility levels have been restored, or are struggling to navigate the state bureaucracy.

“Some are not aware they are eligible for the program,” said Mitch Lifson, senior policy analyst for Voices for Illinois Children, an advocacy group. “There is not any type of outreach effort that has been transpiring to let people know it has been put back to 185 percent.”

The Council for a Strong America is working to raise awareness of the program. It held a press conference on the topic in early April and has been circulating fliers informing people of CCAP.

Kimble said she has told some of her former clients that they may be eligible under the revised guidelines, but that the parents can struggle with the paperwork.

“They are totally lost,” Kimble said of parents. “They have to start all over. The state does not do a good job informing the public.”

Changes to CCAP have not only been confusing and burdensome on families. They have also put child-care providers in a difficult spot. For one, the state has reduced a program that made up a sizable portion of the providers’ business. At the same time, child-care centers have not seen a raise in their reimbursement rates since 2012, and at-home child-care providers haven’t seen one since 2014, Lifson said.

At the same time, the state has asked them to increase standards at such businesses, in 2014 implementing a rating and improvement system to establish standards in child care. Child-care employees are increasingly expected to have degrees, Kimble said, but there’s little financial incentive for workers to go back to school.

Because of the lost clients and the failure to receive an increased reimbursement fee, Kimble said she has had to cut back on working hours and has had to forgo raises, which in turn has led to high turnover for her business and others in the same situation. (Kimble is also the executive director of the Austin Childcare Providers Network, a trade group.)

“They want quality but you can’t get quality without paying the staff,” Kimble said. “They want people to get degrees? Nobody is enthusiastic about getting an associates degree and making $12 an hour.”

Some providers are turning their business model away from helping low-income families, instead opting to serve clients who can pay with cash. “What we’ve heard is that people close classrooms,” Lifson said. “They’ve shrunk the capacity just because they haven’t been able to keep the programs open, they’re not getting enough kids. We hope that will bounce back now that all the eligibility has been restored. The (state reimbursement) rate being so low remains a challenge.”

What’s next

The Child Care Assistance Program may seem as if it’s on more solid footing following the 2017 budget and the governor’s reinstating of the original eligibility levels, as well as this year's raise for providers. But the program’s future is still up in the air, experts say.

The main issue moving forward is funding. Rauner’s initial proposed 2019 budget had $96 million less in general revenue funds for CCAP than the year before, Lifson said. The administration’s thinking is that the funding would be adequate for the number of families in the program now, but that doesn’t not take into account the 30,000 children previously booted from the program who could come back, he said.

Then there is the issue of how to certify eligibility.

Changing the eligibility requirements, making it so difficult that families can’t get access, is absolutely counterproductive to what we’re trying to do, which is get parents back into the workplace.
— State Sen. Julie Morrison

In 2014, the federal government reauthorized the Chid Care and Development Fund, which provides funding for state programs that help subsidize child care for low-income families. The legislation has sent Illinois $80 million a year for child-care subsidies, but it also requires the state to recertify a recipient’s eligibility every 12 months.

Illinois had required recertification every six months, a practice that advocates say is cruel to participating families. A six-month certification, they say, means more paperwork and deadlines that, if not met or properly filled out, can kick a family off the program. Twelve-month certification also provides stability to a family, especially for those who do seasonal work or have multiple jobs.

Illinois has not yet implemented the federal standards on recertification after receiving deferrals from the U.S. government on the issue, experts said. Advocates hope that the state finally adopts the practice this year.

Beyond adopting the federal standards, the child-care industry and its allies want to see the program adequately funded in 2019 and beyond.

The issue was something legislators rallied behind. A newly formed caucus on children’s health met this spring to help form an agenda. Caucus co-chair Sen. Julie Morrison, of Deerfield, said she hopes the state properly funds child-care initiatives.

“Changing the eligibility requirements, making it so difficult that families can’t get access, is absolutely counterproductive to what we’re trying to do, which is get parents back into the workplace,” Morrison said. “I’m really open to looking at statistically what the needs are. The problem is how we’re going to pay for it.”

(This is the first in a series of articles on child care, the diaper divide, and other issues working families face across Illinois.)