School is out for the summer. But Little Village resident Jessica Suarez Nieto is already preparing for the start of the next academic year as she searches for childcare options for two of her young children.
“It’s hard,” said Suarez Nieto, a middle school math teacher from Chicago Public Schools in Little Village. “It has become so unaffordable to find childcare that is reliable and that you can trust.”
As an example, Suarez Nieto says a day care center where her sister works costs $415 a week – for one child.
“If you do the math, it’s about the same price as my mortgage, so I’ll just work to pay my mortgage and childcare,” she said. “The affordable piece is almost non-existent.”
Suarez Nieto’s situation is not unique, according to a recent report by the Illinois Child Care for All Coalition, a group of community organizations and unions representing parents and child care workers, which outlines the challenges parents and providers face.
“Illinois’ child care system is not adequately meeting the needs of working families, children and child care workers,” said Brynn Seibert, division director and vice president for child care and early learning at SEIU Healthcare Illinois, which is part of the coalition. . “We often see childcare being unavailable, often unaffordable for families who need childcare and unsustainable due to the low wages earned by childcare workers.”
In Illinois, 58% of the population lives in an area where there aren’t enough nearby child care providers to care for local children, according to the report, which also found that annual child care costs averaged $13,000 in Illinois in 2020. .
“Affordability has always been a big issue in the child care system,” Seibert said, adding that these issues have persisted for years but have gained more attention in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Government investments in childcare
The state’s fiscal year 2023 budget includes $598 million, a $54.4 million increase from FY22, for early childhood education.
“Gee. Pritzker is a lifelong advocate for early childhood education and has worked to increase funding and expand access for child care and early childhood education,” a spokesperson for Governor JB Pritzker said in a statement.
The state also used federal pandemic relief funds to support child care programs. According to the Pritzker Administration, $978 million in pandemic relief has reached more than 12,000 child care providers with more than 85% of eligible child care centers and 60% of licensed child care homes receiving direct relief.
Since the beginning of his administration, Pritzker has increased funding for the Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP), which is one state program that subsidizes the cost of child care for working families and serves nearly 100,000 children and has a budget of $1.17 billion across the state. and federal resources for FY23, according to a spokeswoman.
“These investments were made to ensure that Illinois is the best state in the nation to raise young children,” a spokeswoman said in a statement, “and the governor intends to continue to make these critical investments increase in the coming years.”
Starting Friday, income eligibility requirements for CCAP will be increased to include families with incomes below 225% of the federal poverty line (up from the previous limit of 200%), or up to $62,437.50 for a family of four, and raise the eligibility limit by reassessment to 275% of the federal poverty line (up from 250%), or to $76,312.50 for a family of four. (Families receiving CCAP subsidies must re-determine eligibility every 12 months. If their wages rise above the eligibility limit – 225% of the federal poverty line – due to a raise, they can continue to receive CCAP subsidies as their income below 275% of the federal poverty line.) That change could increase the number of children served by up to 20,000, according to state officials.
While the program does have a co-pay, Pritzker’s administration has taken steps to make CCAP more affordable, according to Bethany Patten, associate director of programs for the Illinois Department of Human Services’ early childhood division.
“In the past year, Governor Pritzker lowered the co-payments to $1 for a number of families, including families below 100% of the federal poverty line,” she said, adding co-payments for CCAP-eligible families with a parent or guardian living in the childhood work. care will also be reduced to $1 starting Friday.
Copayments have also been eliminated for families experiencing homelessness and are limited to no more than 7% of a family’s income, according to Patten.
But that still leaves many parents like Suarez Nieto, who don’t qualify for subsidized care, paying tens of thousands of dollars, according to Seibert.
Ask for universal child care, increased workers’ wages
“Parents are paying so much more than they can afford,” said Seibert of SEIU Healthcare Illinois. “We are all very fortunate to live in a state where many elected officials and leaders are looking at how to improve the child care system, and we really want to highlight the need to expand access to child care to put Illinois on the path .to have a fully public, universal child care system for all families that also respects child care workers.”
A Pritzker spokeswoman did not address WTTW News questions about whether the governor supports raising taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals to fund a universal child care system in Illinois as the coalition has proposed.
Advocates are also calling for childcare workers to be paid a living wage, saying it goes hand in hand with ensuring childcare is affordable for everyone.
“We can’t solve one problem without solving the other,” Seibert said.
The median hourly wage for an early childhood teacher in 2019 was $13, and that rate was just $17.79 for an administrative director, according to the report, which also found that nearly 20% of early childhood care educators in Illinois in living poverty.
Riverdale resident Tahiti Hamer has worked as an early childhood educator for over 20 years. “It was my calling,” she said. “I believe in educating young minds.”
Hamer, who works as an infant and toddler teacher at the North Lawndale YMCA, says she makes $22 an hour. “It’s about $45,000 to $47,000 a year — it’s still nothing to really live on when you have the cost of living going up, gas prices going up, food prices going up,” she said. “How are you supposed to survive on $45,000 a year? Not to mention if you have children and have to pay for childcare.”
Low wages make it challenging to recruit and retain staff, according to advocates and business owners.
“I have three staff members, and it’s very, very hard to find reliable people,” said Tita Jackson, who runs TJ’s Heavenly Angels Inc. has been driving out of her Chatham home for the past 21 years.
Late last year, the state announced $300 million in relief grants to support child caregivers nationwide, with grants ranging from $10,000 to $25,000. In an effort to retain and recruit workers, the Strengthen and Grow Child Care Grant program requires that at least 50% of funds be “invested in new staffing and labor initiatives, with a focus on increasing compensation and benefits ,” according to a press release announcing. the program.
Pandemic relief funds allowed Jackson to raise employee pay to $14 an hour, which she says is insufficient.
“$14 an hour is not enough. It’s really hard to keep staff,” she said. “I need someone who loves what they do and works well with children and isn’t just looking for a paycheck.”
Hamer is also concerned about attracting people to the profession.
“The future of this industry if we don’t make drastic changes is scary, really scary, because we’re not going to have teachers here to teach the kids,” she said. “(People) say we’re asking for more money, but I wish people would keep in mind that doctors, lawyers – anyone in these kinds of professions – took someone to teach them. A teacher had to teach a child so they could grow up and become what they are, and yet we are the lowest paid on the totem pole.”
Contact Kristen Thometz: @kristenthometz | (773) 509-5452 | [email protected]