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High prices, gaps in availability across Illinois highlight patchwork child care system

State Capitol in Springfield

In some Illinois communities, finding child care isn’t just a routine task for families to work through, but a seemingly impossible dream.

In some of those places, costs are too high for middle class families to afford. In others, day cares have had to cut staff, limiting the number of available placements. Some areas, especially rural ones, have just one or two licensed day care centers for a population of hundreds of children.

Gov. JB Pritzker has made child care and early childhood education a priority in this year’s proposed budget. Since introducing his budget on Feb. 15, he has visited child care centers in eight cities to promote his “Smart Start” plan, a program of policies aimed at bolstering the child care workforce and making it more affordable for families.

“It is important to us to make sure that every 3- and 4-year-old in Illinois can go to preschool and have child care available to them,” Pritzker said during the Springfield stop on his multi-city tour.

More children than places to put them

Part of the problem in Illinois is that there are more children than “slots” for them in child care settings. Day care centers, in-home day cares and preschools all have a capacities based on staffing levels and facility size.

Licensed day care providers have an average capacity of about 31 children in Illinois. This includes day care centers, in-home day care providers and some Head Start programs among others.

Marshall County, for example, has about 650 children under five, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, but only four licensed day care providers, according to Illinois Department of Human Services records. Including preschools, Marshall County has only 184 slots for children under five.

Rachael DeSpain is the Head Start program director for the Tri-County Opportunities Council, an agency that offers services to low-income people in a nine-county area that includes Marshall County. DeSpain said that even the best data on child care availability doesn’t capture the whole picture.

“Until we begin to work collectively to group children in a needs- and income-based fashion and slot them in federal, state and private early childhood education centers as appropriate we will not truly know whose needs aren’t being met and what different constituencies are experiencing long waitlists,” said DeSpain in an email. 

Yearslong recruitment, retention issues

In order for Illinois to begin improving child care accessibility, the state needs to expand the number of seats at existing centers and preschools and also build new ones. But to do that, the industry needs adequate staff to be able to run them.

Understaffing, already a major roadblock for the industry, was made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. Ongoing cost-of-living issues brought on by high inflation have made low pay in the sector even more of an issue.

“Educators had a short moment of fame early on in the pandemic,” DeSpain said in an email. “They went from being underpaid and underappreciated to celebrated for a brief moment of time. Now in light of current economic times they are even more underpaid and underappreciated. It’s no surprise to those working in the field why we can’t retain staff or attract new talent.”

The problems outlined by DeSpain are not unique to Marshall County or even Illinois. Nationwide, wages for the child care workforce have seen little if any growth over the past decade.

April Janney is the CEO of Illinois Action for Children, a group that researches and advocates for child care issues in the state. They also operate their own early learning programs in some Cook County suburbs as well as serving as a referral agency to help families find care in Cook County.

Janney said while the professionalization of the child care field has been good for educational outcomes, the typical pay in the field has not risen to match the levels of training and licensing needed for high-quality care.

“You can’t push them to be professionals and then pay them like they’re not,” Janney said.

The issue of pay is one of the central pillars of the Illinois Childcare for All Coalition, a labor-backed organizing push which launched in May of last year. The group published a white paper claiming that “nearly 20 percent of early educators in Illinois live in poverty.” A separate report for the group advocated for a $52,000 per year (or $25 per hour) earnings floor for child care workers.

Similar to other low-paid, hourly sectors like hospitality, the pandemic disrupted the child care workforce.

“We have not yet seen the return of the workforce pre-pandemic,” Janney said.

According to research from Chapin Hall, a policy research group based at the University of Chicago, the early months of the pandemic were particularly hard for the child care industry, with 36 percent of the workforce experiencing interruptions in employment, meaning they quit or were fired from their job.

Their research found that among the lowest quarter of earners, more than half of child care workers in Illinois left their job or were fired at least temporarily, with 20 percent leaving the industry entirely.

Even where available, child care is often too expensive

The price of child care is also prohibitive for many seeking it, as prices have increased significantly in the last decade.

A survey conducted before the pandemic from the federal education department’s National Center for Education Statistics found that cost was the most cited reason for difficulty finding child care. Cost was cited by 37 percent of families, outpacing the second most commonly cited reason, a lack of open slots for new children, by 10 percentage points.

In 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, the average weekly cost of child care in Illinois was $133.69 per child, according to the National Database for Childcare Prices, a project of the federal Department of Labor. Fifty-two weeks of child care at the average cost in Illinois represents nearly 13 percent of the state’s median household income.

For the Illinois’ poorest families, the state’s Child Care Assistance Program can help pay for child care costs. As of 2020, there were 84,000 children whose child care costs were being offset with state help.

To qualify for CCAP, a family’s income must be below 225 percent of the federal poverty level. This means that a family of four would have a household income less than $62,438 in 2022, per the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

Child care advocates have been working on addressing high costs to parents and a lack of availability at the local level through payment assistance programs and funding for child care providers. In Effingham County, Courtney Yockey leads the Effingham County Board’s Childcare Research Committee, a group made up of representatives of child care providers, local governments and businesses.

The committee requested and received $400,000 from the county’s allotment of American Rescue Plan Act funds. Among several programs, the largest slice of that money, $150,000, will go to a county program that will help offset costs for those who don’t qualify for CCAP, but who still struggle to pay for child care.

Yockey said Effingham’s program will benefit families with incomes between 225 percent and 250 percent of the poverty line, just above the current CCAP income limits. He said middle-class and lower-middle class families are struggling the most to pay for child care in Effingham.

The issue of costs and CCAP eligibility is not just a problem for rural communities, according to Janney, whose work is primarily focused on Chicago and its closest suburbs.

“The cost of living in Chicago and Cook County is higher than some suburban or southern areas, so the cost of child care is higher,” she said.

Janney later added that a higher income threshold for CCAP would benefit working families, and child care advocates are pushing to raise the threshold to 300 percent of the poverty line.

The state’s role in child care

Pritzker’s Smart Start plan, which has a first-year price tag of $250 million for the upcoming fiscal year, has components to address many of these issues. These goals include adding 5,000 new preschool slots this year and instituting a new system for child care workers’ contracts that Pritzker says will increase wages. The plan would require additional funding in future years to accomplish the goal of adding 20,000 preschool slots by 2027.

Pritzker’s proposed budget also includes $70 million for CCAP and $100 million in capital grants for early childhood providers to expand facilities.

“We’re really excited to hear about the budget the governor proposed,” Janney said.

Janney said proposals to raise early childhood educators’ pay through contract reform and capping child care costs at 7 percent of a family’s income would be welcome improvements.

Not everyone is convinced these ideas are a feasible long-term solution, although even skeptical voices say that state programs would help address some of the child care needs.

“Any support from state and federal government can be welcome,” said Yockey, although he cautioned against one-time programs being treated as a permanent fix. “Is it sustainable? Is it something that can go on?”

Some political leaders in Springfield have also cited concern about Pritzker’s overall budget, particularly the expanded state programs. Republicans worry that the increases on spending won’t be sustainable if state revenue growth slows.

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Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit news service operated by the Illinois Press Foundation that provides coverage of state government to newspapers throughout Illinois. It is funded by donations from the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. The mission of Capitol News Illinois is to provide credible and unbiased coverage of state government. Capitol News Illinois provides year-round, daily coverage of the Legislature, including committee hearings; state agencies and issues; state office holders; and the Illinois Supreme Court and legal matters.

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