SPRINGFIELD — Most people probably thought the child care crisis in Illinois had been solved last fall after Gov. Bruce Rauner backed away from harsh eligibility restrictions and the Legislature cleared the way for federal funds to flow again into the program.
The child care providers, families and advocates who gathered here Wednesday would tell you that’s hardly the case.
With the financial repercussions from Rauner’s temporary rules changes still being felt — and with no revenue increase in sight to adequately fund the program in the future — government-subsidized child care and its companion, early childhood education, occupy a world that still regards itself as very much under siege.
About 80,000 fewer children are being served by the state’s Child Care Assistance Program than in the previous year, according to the advocacy group Illinois Action for Children, which met here this week.
And where are those children now?
“The truth is we have absolutely no idea,” said Maria Whelan, the group’s president and a passionate voice for providing support for poor children and their families.
Some are still ineligible because the maximum income limit for families to qualify, although partially restored, remains lower than before Rauner took office.
Others, single moms mainly, are ineligible because being a full-time student is no longer enough to qualify for the child care subsidy. They need to hold a job as well, a juggling act some can’t manage.
But the reduction in enrolled children is mostly a matter of families finding other options for taking care of their kids while they work, a leftover from the period when the program was refusing new applicants.
“Isn’t that a good thing?” you might well ask.
Get back to me when we see their third-grade test scores after they miss out on the early learning experiences that would allow them to better keep pace in the classroom. Better yet, the answer is “No.”
I was invited to speak to the group because of my past coverage of this issue, and I stuck around afterward to hear from a contingent of Chicago mothers with children in the program.
Because of my previous stories, I know that many readers are still stuck in the world of: “They shouldn’t have had children if they can’t afford to take care of them.”
I mentioned that to the conference participants, who were as appalled as I always am.
Their answer was similar to mine, which is that no matter what you think of the parents, you have to recognize the need to look out for the children, who are going to share a future with your children.
Most of you would probably think well of the mothers I met Wednesday, too, if only you had a chance to walk a mile in their shoes.
As Cerathal Burnett, CEO at the Carole Robertson Center for Learning, explained it, they are just women who want to be able to work the job they have so they can feed their babies and maybe give them a leg up on the opportunities they never had.
I met Naressa Jones, 35, who has four daughters and needs child care to keep up her hectic pace as a full-time student at College of DuPage and a nursing assistant at a Hinsdale nursing home.
“If there was no child care in my life, I would probably be homeless,” Jones said.
Child care wasn’t enough to prevent that fate for Kiera Travis, 25, who worked for a nonprofit taking care of seniors before state budget woes caused the agency to fall behind in paying its workers.
The missed paychecks caused Travis to fall behind in her rent. She moved her children into a homeless shelter rather than wait to be evicted. Now she holds a fast-food job.
Bottom line: If we stay on the path we’re headed, the child care crisis is just beginning.