MINOOKA – As 28-year-old Erin Murphy prepared to leave her two-bedroom Minooka apartment for work Friday morning, she asked her 3-year-old son Brady if he was excited to go to day care.
“Yeah!” he exclaimed.
Standing near the front door with his jacket snug, Brady had checked off nearly everything from his to-do list: Eat breakfast, help his mom make smoothies, get dressed, jump on his bed and roll toy trucks across the living room carpet.
All he had left was to put on his shoes.
His mother is in her second semester at Joliet Junior College and works full time as an optician. Murphy is a single mother and is among the 22,000 families in Will County who heavily rely on a state-subsided childcare program that ran out of money last week.
“This is like taking one step forward and 30 steps back,” said Murphy, whose son attends Kiddie Kampus Learning Center in Channahon several days a week. “This program helps people who want to make a better life for themselves. I go to work. I go to school.”
The Illinois Department of Human Services announced recently that it’s short $300 million to pay for the Child Care Assistance Program, known as CCAP, through June.
Childcare providers now are dealing with late payments from the state, leaving more than 100,000 Illinois families like Murphy and Brady with few choices: Pay the full cost of care, consider alternatives, quit their jobs or scale back hours considerably.
‘All a political game’
The funding crisis is rooted in the spending plan approved last May by a Democratic-controlled Legislature and then-Gov. Pat Quinn.
Many criticized the budget for not having enough money to make it through the entire year because it relied on the extension of the temporary state income tax hike. That increase expired Jan. 1, triggering funding shortfalls through June 30, the end of the current fiscal year.
Negotiations are ongoing between Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, and a Democrat-controlled House and Senate, but both sides are blaming the other on the day care funding crisis.
Amy Emerson, assistant director for Joliet-based Child Care Resource and Referral, called it “all a political game,” where children and families are the victims.
State Rep. Larry Walsh Jr., D-Elwood, said lawmakers punted when they passed a stitched-together budget last year with the understanding they’d address the income tax hike at a later date – one that never came.
Walsh and other lawmakers now look to Rauner for a solution.
“This puts parents trying to do the right thing in a bad predicament,” Walsh said. “Hopefully the governor can come up with a reasonable solution.”
But Rauner’s administration blamed lawmakers, saying late last week this funding crisis should have been fixed “yesterday.”
“As far as the Rauner administration is concerned, the deadline to find a responsible solution to the CCAP funding shortfall was yesterday,” according to an emailed statement from the governor’s office. “The budget signed by former Gov. Quinn left a $296 million budget hole for this program, and the administration is working urgently to address the problem.”
Sen. Pat McGuire, D-Joliet, said his office last week received more than 50 letters in a 24-hour period from concerned childcare providers and parents. He added that Rauner’s administration has said it is working on the issue but has not offered lawmakers a timeline.
“To my ears, there’s a contrast between providers who are describing this as an acute crisis with imminent consequences and the Rauner administration, which is not acting immediately,” McGuire said.
Options to fix the funding issue include granting Rauner wider authority to reallocate money from other budget areas or shifting $300 million to the program from surplus funds within the state budget. An agreed-upon solution has yet to emerge.
Illinois lawmakers are not due back in Springfield until Feb. 17.
Day care centers deal
The Fun in Learning Early Learning Center, 140 Republic Ave. in Joliet, is among those in the region that offer low-income families discounted childcare rates. It does not know when it will next be reimbursed by the state.
About 80 percent of the 44 children enrolled there come from low-income families or single parents who rely on the program, Administrator Jessica Moore said.
The state shortfall is already causing concern at the center, said Moore, whose child also is enrolled there.
“As of right now, one of our biggest problems, honestly, is funding everything from staff to the food we provide the children, and supplies,” Moore said. “Basically, this funding shortage is putting a whole damper on the day care’s operations.”
Moore said the program – designed for working, low-income families who fall below 185 percent of the federal poverty level – is a vital part of these family’s lives.
“Without childcare, the majority of these families would literally crumble to pieces,” Moore said.
Margaret Loughran, owner of Kiddie Kampus in Channahon, agreed, saying she’s most worried about parents, including Murphy.
“I know it’s a hardship for us, but eventually, the only option will be to pass along the cost to the parents,” Loughran said.
Murphy said paying the full costs of day care would result in her having to quit her job to provide full-time care for Brady. The funding cut would be “devastating” to her and Brady’s lives.
“Without this funding, I wouldn’t be able to work,” Murphy said. “I wouldn’t be able to afford rent and then we wouldn’t have a place to live.”
As Murphy dropped off Brady early Friday morning, the 3-year-old – who earlier that morning couldn’t wait to see his friends at day care – momentarily broke into tears and ran after his mother.
Murphy picked him up and kissed him on the forehead. She’d be back later that day to take him home.
But first, she had to go to work.