Rauner backs down on child care subsidies

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Gov. Rauner on Monday announced he was reversing-course on eligibility rules for state child care assistance. | Sun-Times Media file photo

Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration is changing course and revising eligibility requirements for a state child care assistance program.

During the summer, the first-term Republican governor severely restricted eligibility because there’s no state budget. But on Monday, Rauner spokesman Lance Trover says eligibility will rise to 162 percent of the federal poverty level.

He says it’s the result of “bipartisan discussions with legislators.”

Trover said copays will remain but the administration is lifting other restrictions pending further review. The administration also will form a task force to look at the program’s stability. The program gives low-income working parents access to child care based on a sliding scale.

“The governor’s office thanks the serious, good-faith negotiations by members of the legislature who made today’s announcement a reality,” according to a written statement issued by Trover. “This bipartisan agreement will allow us to avoid the unintended consequences and costs that SB 570 would have brought. By working together, we will be able to bring financial stability to an important program valued by members of both parties.”

Senate Bill 570 would reverse all of Rauner’s cuts to the program. It could yet be called for a vote this week – and some Rauner critics said it still is needed, citing the 11th-hour nature of Rauner’s compromise.

SEIU Healthcare Illinois President Keith Kelleher issued a statement noting that Rauner budged “only after bipartisan public outcry across Illinois over the pain and suffering caused by cuts that have kicked 70,000 kids off child care,” and that Rauner’s “arbitrary actions, which should never have happened in the first place, show just why, deal or no deal, we still need Senate Bill 570 to pass tomorrow, to remove the ability for a governor, Democrat or Republican, to use unchecked executive power to destroy by rule those programs created by statute.”

Rauner’s about-face was announced just as child care providers, advocates and low-income parents were turning up the heat on the Illinois General Assembly to reverse an enrollment freeze that, they claim, has prevented 90 percent of eligible low-income families from accessing the child care they so desperately need.

They were joined at a City Hall news conference Monday by members of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus who have long demanded universal, full-day child care, perhaps funded by a financial transaction tax on LaSalle Street exchanges that Mayor Rahm Emanuel has long opposed and is currently prohibited by state and federal law.

Informed of Rauner’s decision to get behind an amended rule raising income eligibility to 162 percent of the federal poverty level with no change in co-pays, Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd) was unimpressed.

“It’s a day late and a dollar short. We need to fully-fund this day care system to be able to provide working families with a viable, safe alternative in order for them to be able to go back to work,” Munoz said.

“You can’t govern by press release. The legislative process is in place specifically to negotiate what [House Bill] 570 should look like.”

South Side Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) agreed House Bill 570 is the “best opportunity to get struggling child care providers paid and kids the care they need” so their parents can feel free to go to work.

“When they’re not getting paid, they can’t pay their workers. They have to close their doors. They can’t sustain themselves any longer. In my neighborhood, these are predominantly African-American women-owned businesses. I can’t allow that to continue to happen and devastate my community. My next-door neighbor is a child-care provider. We talk about it all the time — how devastating it is to her already,” Sawyer said.

“There are parents who have to make a decision. Either child care or work. That should not be an option for any citizen. That’s embarrassing. That’s unconscionable. From the numbers I’ve seen, we might have the lowest threshold for child care assistance in the country. We cannot continue to allow that to happen.”

Sawyer said he is “encouraged” that Rauner is “trying to do something.” But, he said, “I don’t know yet if that’s enough.” The alderman noted, prior to the governor’s cuts, the eligibility level used to be 185 percent of the federal poverty level.

With 162 percent, Sawyer said, “We’d still be leaving some people in the wind. … [SB] 570 still looks to be our best option.”

On July 1, Rauner imposed new rules that raised co-payments and sharply restricted eligibility to groups that included: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the proposal that replaced cash welfare benefits in the mid-1990’s; families earning 50 percent of the federal poverty level; families with special needs and teen parents going to school full-time.

Parents already receiving the child care subsidy on June 30 were allowed to remain in the program, so long as they stayed employed with an annual income level 185 percent below the federal poverty level.

But any “work interruption” longer than 30 days would force them out of the program. Advocates contend that the new rules doomed state-subsidized child care to a slow death.

According to Action for Children, the caseload dropped by nine percent after just one month under the new rules. Child care advocates have estimated that at least 20,000 children have been rejected from the program since July.

Advocates claim a Rauner administration memo issued last week pegged the current caseload at more than 90,000 children. That’s a 70,000-child reduction from the 160,000 caseload cited three months ago by former Child Care Assistance Program administrator Linda Saterfield.

Marisol Nieves, owner of Little Einstein Day care in Logan Square, said she started providing child care services in Hermosa in 2003. The bulk of her enrollment was through CCAP. Now, it’s less than 10 percent.

“Low-income families need help because they cannot work without the help of this program. If they do not work, how will their families survive? That just means an increase in the need for public assistance. What will that mean for the city and for the state?”

Nieves said.

“This state has a goal of having children kindergarten-ready by 2020. That’s only four years from now. That means that the provision has to begin now. The bulk of the children who will attend public school kindergarten are the very children who are being denied a foundation for success….It ails me that I cannot provide services to children who deserve equal access to quality.”

Contributing: Associated Press

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Ald. David Moore (17th) holds 2-year-old Averie Mitchell of North Lawndale during a City Hall news conference Monday called to turn up the heat on the Illinois General Assembly to reverse Gov. Bruce Rauner’s child care cuts. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

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