The biggest issue facing Illinois is the state budget deficit. Eight months into the new fiscal year, it remains the biggest issue, and ever more pressing.
Given the continued budget impasse, it is necessary to provide as much certainty for struggling working families as possible during these difficult times. However, Governor Rauner’s unilateral action to slash eligibility for the state’s Child Care Assistance Program, and eliminate services for 90 percent of families otherwise eligible, put hundreds of millions of dollars in federal assistance at risk, created confusion among working families and providers, and threatened the economic potential of working families and the state as a whole.
In March 2015, the governor asked Republicans and Democrats in the General Assembly to put more money into the child care program, which we did. Then, Democrats worked with advocates of the program to maintain a funding level that would ensure more than 160,000 eligible children throughout the state would receive care while their parents continued working. But over the summer, the governor chose to kick an estimated 75,000 children who had previously been eligible off the program.
Under the governor’s direction, a family of four earning more than $1,011 per month would not be eligible to receive affordable child care services. This extremely low income threshold forced many working families to choose between staying on the job or making sure their children received the care they need — an impossible choice. Due to statewide and legislative pressure, the governor decided to partially scale back his massive cuts. However, uncertainty remains among providers and families as nearly 14,000 children remain ineligible for child care services, hundreds of child care providers have been forced to close, and the state remains without a budget.
To counter Governor Rauner’s reckless decision, House Democrats fought to guarantee in state law the previous eligibility standards that helped significantly more struggling working families. Without a guarantee in the law, thousands of families are without services because they applied for the Child Care Assistance Program while the governor’s drastic changes were in effect.
The lack of a state budget continues to impact a number of services and programs that Illinois residents rely on and that reach the most vulnerable families. Autism services and Home Visiting, two programs that are pillars of the early childhood system and have great impact on the health and development of children, remain unfunded. Parents who are full-time students are no longer eligible for child care and are not receiving critical financial aid through MAP grants. These families’ well-being and economic potential are being harmed by the budget impasse.
The Child Care Assistance Program has always received bipartisan support. The program allows struggling, working families to successfully continue their transition from welfare to work while making sure their children receive the daily care they need — the very kind of program that has been lauded by Republicans throughout the country for getting people off welfare and into the workforce.
We understand the need for, and have supported, reductions in government spending. However, the governor’s actions have hurt struggling working families and created unnecessary government bureaucracy and strains on local providers. The drastic changes, reversals and uncertainty in the Child Care Assistance Program, and pain resulting from the budget impasse, could have been avoided had the governor been willing to work with the General Assembly and advocates to avoid dangerous cuts to programs that struggling, working families depend on.
Michael J. Madigan is speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives.