Thursday, October 8, 2015

Brown: An Illinois disaster you may be missing

Brown: An Illinois disaster you may be missing


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Gov. Bruce Rauner. File Photo. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Is it possible for a disaster to be unfolding all around us, and we don't even notice, the victims unseen until it's too late?

Maria Whelan thinks so, and so do I.

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Whelan is the wise and influential president of Illinois Action for Children, a group that advocates for a strong state-supported system of early child care and education.

The crisis that keeps flying under the radar but is readily apparent to Whelan is the impact from Gov. Bruce Rauner's decision to blow up the state's child care assistance program for working parents.

As I've been trying to warn you for several months, Rauner used his emergency rulemaking powers to make an end run around the Legislature and invoke new regulations that deny child care benefits to 90 percent of new applicants who would have previously been eligible.

The effect isn't to destroy Illinois' previously admirable system of early child care all at once, but to do so gradually, with most of the disruption being felt by families in no position to be seen or heard.

"It's really cruel, but quiet," Whelan told me Wednesday outside a hearing held by Rauner's Department of Human Services on whether the governor's emergency rule changes should be made permanent.

"We've created a situation where the victims are invisible, and they're left to fend for themselves," Whelan said.


What happens now is that a young mother, needing financial assistance to put her child in day care while she goes to work or school, applies to a program.

Under Rauner's rules, she gets turned down, most likely because she makes too much money, which now includes anyone earning minimum wage.

So she goes away.

The child doesn't go away. The mom's need for child care doesn't go away. Her need to earn a living to support her child doesn't go away.

But the mom moves along to make the tough decisions about what to do next: Child care or stay home? Go on welfare or switch the kid to the unlicensed day care down the street? Pay the child care or the rent?

And when a reporter like me asks the day care providers to help find these victims to put their stories before the public, they have already disappeared like water slipping through the cracks in the sidewalk, too busy with their own struggle for survival to engage in the why's and wherefore's of government decision-making. As word gets around, some no longer even bother to apply.

Luckily, some of those victims showed up for Wednesday's hearing, along with the service providers large and small who say it's only a matter of months before Rauner's policy changes put them out of business entirely.

When the day care centers are all gone, asked one tearful woman, "who is going to take care of the children?"

I spoke with three Elgin moms whose young children had been ruled ineligible for assistance, two of whom had previously qualified while the other was applying for the first time.

For now, their day care operator is continuing to carry them in hopes state officials will come to their senses, but the moms know that can't continue much longer.

Lluvia Perez, a single mom of four children under age 10, said she supports her family with her $360 a week paycheck as a housekeeper, which now exceeds Rauner's limit for those seeking subsidized day care.

Perez, who has epilepsy, said that has put her in a tough spot.

"I had to pick between my medication, rent or child care," she said. "For me, it's a very scary situation. I need to keep working and to take my kids to a safe place."

Her friend Julia Flores, a married mother of three, said the child care assistance program allowed her to work her way up from a minimum wage job after she had her first child at age 17 to a better paying bank job.

Flores lost the bank job and still was ruled ineligible because her husband's low-paying position as a fuel truck delivery driver exceeds the new limits.

"I was moving up in my life," said Flores, now less certain of the future both for herself and, more important, for her child.

Almost comically, only one DHS employee sat in front of the audience to accept the testimony, a bank of empty chairs arrayed on the stage behind her.

The message seemed clear: Talk all you want. Bruce Rauner isn't listening.

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