Limits on who is eligible for this Welfare-to-Work program sparked intense debate in Springfield. But the fight isn’t over.
Lindsay Jamison’s four children spent time with various family members over the summer. When she brought the three youngest back to their regular day care last month, she got startling news. Jamison was told her family was no longer eligible because her income as a nurse’s assistant and phlebotomist was too high.
The family’s income would have been too high had the Loves Park mother earned as little as $1,184 a month. For a single parent and child, the cutoff is now $664. Under new Illinois Department of Human Services rules instated July 1, some parents earning minimum wage in full-time jobs make twice as much as the cutoff.
In fact, 90 percent of parents throughout the state who tried to sign up after July 1 are no longer eligible, according to estimates by lawmakers and advocates. That includes not only families new to the program, but those parents, like Jamison, who had not used the program during summer months and tried to re-enroll only to discover they no longer qualified.
After the loss of state assistance in paying for child care, Jamison says she had to quit her nurse’s assistant job because it was impossible for her to find such early morning help as offered at the YMCA. In the afternoons, she has scrambled to shuffle her children between several relatives and friends. Her budget, she says, has tightened to the point where it is difficult to pay for the cost of gas to transport the children, who are between the ages of 7 and 12. Weekly excursions to mini-golf or a pumpkin patch are now out of the question because of the cost. And the children miss the activities they were able to engage in at the YMCA of Rock River Valley child care.
“Young women [and some men who are heads of households] are being forced to choose between leaving their child in an unsafe environment or quitting their job or not taking a job opportunity and remaining on welfare,’’ says Peoria Democratic Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, who is a sponsor of Senate Bill 570, which would reverse the eligibility change. “And then the child … does not have an opportunity to have access to a high-quality early child care program.”
Jamison says, “I understand those people who kind of use the system, but for those who are here, who work hard, who actually need the help, it puts a huge strain on our lives and not only on our lives, on our kids’ lives.”
The state assistance program was created after the 1996 federal Welfare-to-Work initiative. Prior to July 1, it had served families that earned up to 185 percent of the federal poverty line, which would be $51,634 for a family of five or $29,101 for a single parent and child. Under the new emergency rules enacted by Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration, if a single parent with one child earns more than $7,968 a year, that family is no longer eligible. In all, about 20,000 children who would otherwise be eligible for the Child Care Assistance Program are expected to be without state-subsidized care by the end of the month. More than 160,000 children had care through the program up until the rule change. The new rule does not apply to families already enrolled at the time it took effect.
“Those slots now that child care providers have are sitting open, and they can’t fill them because 90 percent of people who would apply are no longer eligible,’’ says Emily Miller, director of policy and advocacy for Voices for Illinois Children.
“These are businesses that were created out of a need to provide early childhood services, to the individuals within our community,’’ Gordon-Booth says. “These are businesses that are being forced to lay off workers because they don’t have the resources to remain open because of this ruling. So, between the business, the parents, the child, and the community, I very clearly see four very large losers in this ruling being upheld.”
Participation in the child care program that Jamison’s children attended dropped from 256 children before the eligibility changes to 31 after, says Paul Nolley, associate director of community development for the YMCA of Rock River Valley. His organization, which serves an area that includes Rockford, Loves Park and Machesney Park, is considering raising funds to provide scholarships for child care. That move, he says, would likely mean cuts to other Y programs.
The eligibility changes implemented in July under emergency rules are set to expire in November. When asked if the administration planned to make the rule permanent, Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said in an email, “Illinois needs a balanced budget before we can evaluate any actions that have been taken to responsibly manage the state’s finances during the budget impasse.”
The Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR) is expected to consider a request to rescind the rule at its October 13 meeting. The Senate voted to reverse the rule, but the House failed to do by one vote earlier this month. The House convenes again September 24.
“We are most definitely going to keep trying to fix it through legislative means,” says Miller of Voices for Illinois Children. “At the same time we are encouraging the department and JCAR to rescind the rules, which would make the legislation unnecessary.
“Our hope is … as the governor realizes the detrimental impact that it’s having, that we can roll this back through the path of least resistance, either through the governor rolling it back on his own, or by legislators rolling it back for him,” she says.
But the governor is not willing to support backing off his new eligibility rules, his spokeswoman says. The state’s budget impasse and projected shortfall in the billions is also what drives Republican lawmaker’s opposition to reversing the rules, says Hinsdale Republican Rep. Patti Bellock, who is minority spokeswoman of the House Human Services Committee and its budgetary counterpart. “Certainly, we all support child care assistance for children in Illinois and to help our working women and families,” she says. “The issue is extremely, extremely important. The bottom line is we don’t want to make promises that we cannot keep in this 2016 budget until we have an actual budget, which we do not have yet.”
The program is currently receiving federal dollars, but without a budget, there is no state support. According to a new report from Voices For Illinois Children, providers have just started getting payments for costs incurred after July 1, when the new fiscal year began.
When asked whether she would support expanding eligibility back to its previous level, Bellock says, “When we do get this budget finally where we can take a look at it. We’re going to have to see what we can support throughout everything, not just social services.”
She says voters sent a message about their frustration with the state’s recent dysfunction and unbalanced budgets when they elected Rauner. “In this last election, both Democrats, Republicans and independents voted for a governor that, his main delivery of his message to the public was that he was going to bring about reform in Illinois. And that’s what they wanted. They’re tired of that tax-and-spend way of doing business that’s been done in recent years. It’s a really difficult process to be in, but that’s how our families in Illinois budget their money, and that’s how they want government to budget their money.”
Miller says it is “unfortunate” that supporters must seek the favorable vote of every Democrat in the House because Republican lawmakers are not willing to reject Rauner’s rule change. “Historically child care has been part of the Welfare-to-Work push. We value work, and we want people to be able to work and to not rely on public assistance, so this was sort of the bargain,” she says. “There’s no reason for this to hinge on whether there are 71 Democrats in Springfield, but for whatever reason, that’s where this has devolved to.” SB 570 passed in the Senate with only Democratic support.
Gordon-Booth says, “It’s very, very hard for me to believe, to understand why this is such a problem, because this has been, over the years, a bipartisan law — bipartisan created, bipartisan supported program over the last two decades.”
But recently the program has had some partisan detractors. One Republican lawmaker said she wants to be sure that children’s fathers are taking responsibility. “Here’s what we can all agree on, we only want people to have this is if they deserve it,’’ said Wheaton Rep. Jeanne Ives during floor debate. “I am telling you right now, I am not interested in providing to people where you don’t know the paternity.” She later said, “Now I don’t think it’s a stretch here to say that almost everybody in the state of Illinois would agree you should have verifiable need. And that means you know who the daddy is and whether or not he can afford that child — whether the taxpayer should be funding, or whether there’s actual child support he can provide to his child.”
After Ives’ comments, Democratic Rep. Litesa Wallace of Rockford told representatives that she was recipient of child care assistance six years ago. She said she was disturbed by “ongoing overtone and undertones about what working families look like.”
“So for all of these moral judgments and all of this discussion of who’s respectable and who deserves what, that’s not what we’re here to decide.” Wallace said forcing women to demand support from fathers before they could be eligible for the program would put domestic violence survivors at risk. “I was a woman with a master’s degree and a broken engagement due to domestic violence who picked up the pieces of her life and because of doing that was receiving child care subsidies.”
Gordon-Booth says she will bring the measure before the House again when she believes she has the votes needed for a veto-proof majority. Democratic Rep. Ken Dunkin of Chicago was expected to cast the missing final “yes” vote for SB 570, but he was absent when the bill came up earlier this month. Dunkin did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Without the support of a supermajority, the legislation could not go into effect until June 1, 2016. Gordon-Booth says it is unlikely she will have the necessary 71 Democratic votes on September 24 because at least two ill Democrats who turned out for the previous vote may not be able to be in session that day
“In the meantime, every day now that school has started, in particular, this is just going to get more and more messy,’’ Miller says. “Hopefully, the severity of the situation will start to kick in in lawmakers’ minds.”
Gordon-Booth says though she never had to rely on the program, she knows many people who have, including her best friend, who was working full time and taking college courses. Without the program, Gordon-Booth says she would never have been able to complete her degree.
“Now she is very, very successful. She lives in the northern part of Chicago, and her daughter is making straight As and Bs in one of the top-notch schools in the state of Illinois. And if it were not for the [Child Care Assistance] Program, she never would have had the ability to not only change her life, but her daughter’s life,” Gordon-Booth says. “So I see very clearly what can happen to a young woman or a young working family, if it does not have the ability to access quality child care. … What we’re doing, essentially, is we’re sending them back to the welfare rolls.”