The Oak Park-River Forest Day Nursery in nearby Oak Park has been taking care of the children of working mothers for roughly 103 years. In the nonprofit's early days, "full-time, quality care" for the children of mothers who worked as domestics in Oak Park cost around 5 cents per child, per day — lunch included.
Today, the nonprofit's mission is still to provide high-quality, affordable child care for all area parents who need it, but it's becoming much harder to carry out, says Cari Christoff, the nursery's executive director.
Since last July, when Gov. Bruce Rauner enacted drastic reductions to the state's Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP), which subsidizes child care services for low-income families, the number of preschoolers at the OP-RF Day Nursery whose parents were CCAP beneficiaries has been reduced by roughly a quarter, Christoff said.
"Our entire demographic is starting to shift," she said in an interview while attending the Collaboration for Early Childhood's 13th Annual Symposium at Julian Middle School on Feb. 27.
"We need revenue, so we're going to families who don't qualify [for CCAP funding]. Down the line, [the decreasing enrollment of low-income children] could affect our ability to get certain types of funding. If I'm not serving those populations at the percentages necessary to continue to qualify for funding, our entire mission changes."
Late last year, Rauner reversed many of the CCAP measures, which included raising the minimum-income eligibility threshold to 50 percent of the federal poverty level and requiring single parents to open child-support cases as a condition of receiving CCAP benefits, which he had implemented after budget talks fell apart in July.
But Christoff and several other Oak Park and Austin child-care providers say the state's funding system is still inadequate relative to the demand for quality early child care among low-income families — not just in high-poverty areas, but in this village as well.
"There's a misunderstanding that Oak Park doesn't have at-risk children," Christoff said. "The families who can afford to pay will begin to outweigh those children who desperately need high-quality, affordable and accessible care and education. So we're sending a mixed message."
The new minimum income standard for qualifying for CCAP — 162 percent of the federal poverty level — is much lower than the 180 percent level that had been in place just a few years ago.
That's a maximum income of around $32,500, compared to a maximum of around $36,600, for a family of three children. According to a May 2014 study by the Economic Progress Institute, the average cost of care for a child under 6 years old is around $830 a month.
And the state is still chronically slow at paying those CCAP funds to child care providers, particularly those in Cook County, where benefit applications often take months to process — even for parents who have already enrolled in the system before.
"The state is asking us to loan them money and be patient. I've been very, very patient, but I have to survive," said Melody Robinson, an Oak Park home daycare provider to low-income children who said she may have to go out of business because of the state's inadequacies.
"One-hundred and sixty-five percent of the federal poverty level is not a livable wage," said Christoff. "We're providing nutritional meals, activity, staff and what we're receiving doesn't cover that."
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