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How Illinois Is Trying To Rebuild Trust In Child Care Aid Program

Kids play at child care
Elaine Thompson
In Illinois, a family looking to send an infant to a child care center—often the most expensive option—on average pays $250 a week, according to Child Care Aware of America.";s:

Here’s something you don’t hear every day: Child care in Illinois just got more affordable.

Years after a sharp decline in enrollment, the state is now investing more money into the Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP), which helps low and moderate-income families. Income eligibility limits are being relaxed, maximum co-pays are being lowered, and the state has earmarked more money to train and pay child care workers—a notoriously underpaid profession.

In all, the Illinois Department of Human Services is investing $32 million in new money into child care. It hopes to increase CCAP enrollment by 20,000 children by June 2020.

“We think it’s a worthwhile investment for the state,” IDHS Secretary Grace B. Hou told WGLT's Ryan Denham on The 21st show.

Child care experts across Illinois call these good first steps—in contrast to how neglected CCAP became in recent years. In July 2015, former Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration significantly lowered the maximum income a family could make to qualify for CCAP. It only lasted a few months, but the program lost over 30,000 families as a result, said Maria Whelan, president and CEO for the Chicago-based Illinois Action for Children.

“Even though most of those eligibility restrictions were rescinded, the program did not really bounce back,” Whelan said.

That move in 2015 created a “rip in the trust” between parents and the program, said Dan Harris, executive director of Illinois Network of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies (INCCRRA), which includes 16 local referral agencies around the state.

“We’re still in the process of rebuilding from that,” Harris said. The 2019 changes are a “step toward rebuilding some of the trust and understanding of how the program really is a benefit.”

Here’s what’s changed:

  • Families can make up to 200% of the federal poverty limit and still qualify to join CCAP. So a family of three can make up to $42,660 a year and still qualify. That’s up from $39,468 before. Families can now remain eligible for assistance even if their income increases to $48,000.
  • Parents in CCAP are required to help pay for the cost of their child care. But that maximum co-pay has been reduced, from over 11% of their income down to 9%.
  • Families now only have to get re-approved for CCAP once a year, instead of every six months. That went into effect in October 2018.

The increased eligibility, while modest, will make a difference, Harris said. Parents in CCAP tended to “clump” at the upper end of the income eligibility scale, he said.
“So raising the upper income threshold will sort of release that bubble a little bit, and allow people to make more money on their own and still maintain their subsidy level. And that's important, because as we all know, child care is incredibly expensive,” Harris said.

How expensive? In Illinois, a family looking to send an infant to a child care center—often the most expensive option—on average pays $250 a week, according to Child Care Aware of America. That falls to around $160 per week for home-based care.

Now is a good time for parents who previously did not qualify for CCAP to plug their household income into IDHS’ eligibility calculator, said Miranda Lin, an early childhood expert at Illinois State University’s College of Education.

“This is good news for those who are in the middle income level who maybe couldn’t really send their kids to the high-end private sector (for child care), so now they might be able to send their kids to a center and get those state subsidies,” Lin said.

The drop in maximum copays—even a few percentage points—is significant for families, said Carie Biers, assistant director of the Illinois policy team for the Ounce, which advocates for children in their first five years. That drop to 9% would mean around $500 in annual savings for families on the highest end of eligibility, Biers said. (The ideal copay would be no more than 7%, she said.)

“Families have so many hard, fixed costs,” Biers said. “And anything we can do to bring that out-of-pocket cost down for child care is going to be important.”

Promoting The Program

None of these changes matter if families don’t know about CCAP. That’s been a problem.

In 2017, just 34% of eligible family members in Illinois participated in CCAP, down from 56% at the program’s height in 2004, said Hou, the IDHS secretary. Hou said her department is leading a “very aggressive marketing program” to make more parents aware that help is available.

Biers said there have been new fliers and new letters made available to child care providers and parents. A Facebook page for CCAP launched in July. IDHS said over 131,000 children were enrolled in CCAP in August 2019—the highest enrollment number of the last three fiscal years.

"It's just great to see that early childhood is really being valued in our community, in our state, and in our society as a whole."

“It is our job at the Department of Human Services to make sure our programs are accessible, available, and known to the eligible participants,” Hou said. “There have been a variety of reasons why parents have not participated, and we want to address those very forthrightly.”

In Central Illinois, each family in those counties receives on average $754 per month in CCAP subsidy, IDHS says.

At Katie’s Kids, which has two child care learning centers in Bloomington-Normal, around 10% of kids are enrolled in CCAP, said owner Katie Stelle-Mardis.

“I’m definitely sharing this more with our families, because I do realize that there may be some who were just at that brink of not quite qualifying before and they might qualify now. And any kind of assistance to help with child care is just so pivotal for families because child care is expensive,” she said.

Stelle-Mardis said she’s also encouraged by the state putting more money toward bolstering the high-churn, low-pay child care workforce. Starting this year, IDHS doubled its investment in a scholarship program that pays a portion of tuition for eligible professionals working in early care and education or school-age programs. The Great START program, which supplements the wages for those working in child care, will also open up to more people.

“I’m anxious to see how this continues to evolve,” Stelle-Mardis said. “It’s just great to see that early childhood is really being valued in our community, in our state, and in our society as a whole.”

What’s Next?

While these may be good first steps, child care experts say there’s more to do.

Reimbursement rates should be next, said Biers with the Ounce. The amount of money that providers can get from the state often lags the actual cost of child care, especially for infants and toddlers, Biers said. In McLean County, for example, a CCAP subsidy would allow parents to access just 13.6% of infant and toddler spots in those more expensive licensed child care centers, according to a 2018 IDHS market rate survey. That leads more parents to place their kids in home-based care.

“We know that compensation is a huge issue in addressing workforce challenges in early childhood, and raising those rates in the Child Care Assistance Program that go to providers will certainly go a long way,” Biers said.

The state could also do smaller things for providers, Stelle-Mardis said, like waiving or offsetting the cost of CPR and first aid training ($65 per person) or the cost of applying for certain early childhood professional credentials (another $65). Those costs add up.

Child care may also become an issue during the Democratic presidential primary and general election in 2020. At least six Democratic candidates have said they support comprehensive child care plans that would address cost, availability, and provider pay.

Hou said it’s important to think of child care assistance as a workforce development tool.

“It’s a great asset that employers in different parts of Illinois benefit from, in that their employees have stable, affordable child care,” Hou said.

Child Care full

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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