ROGERS PARK — As Gov. Bruce Rauner's cuts to state-subsidized childcare scale back eligibility dramatically — from a maximum income of $2,456 for a single-parent, single-child home to qualify down to a $664 per month or less cutoff in some cases — parents and care providers say everyone is suffering.
Isra Shahin always dreamt of being a mother, and on July 17, 2012 she became one — times three.
But now, the triplets that brought her so much joy, and the child care she relies on to support them, are at the center of a bureaucratic brawl over changes Rauner made to state-funded child care programs this summer.
Shahin, 31, who had been taking classes studying elementary education at Northeastern Illinois University where her husband, 35, works, said after staying home with her now three-year-old triplets the last few years, she was finally ready to start taking classes again.
So she decided to enroll in three NEIU courses as she and her husband began searching for child care options.
On a tight budget from her husband's salary, under $30,000 after taxes, Shahin estimated, she said private daycare was out of the question and settled on Albany Park Community Center.
There, they said they were approved for the state's child care program which offered free daycare services as well as amenities like snacks and lunches. For a few hours a week, she'd be able to continue pursuing her education and run necessary errands like picking up prescriptions and groceries.
But after only three weeks, Shahin said she was told by the community center her three children were no longer eligible for the free program. For $175 a week, they could remain at the center, she said. She says the news shocked her.
"We pay taxes don't we?" she said. "If we are meeting our side of the deal, why is the government not meeting their side of the deal? Why are we not getting anything back in return?"
Shahin ran into several problems with state requirements, one being that her husband made $200 dollars too many a year (or $3.84 a week) to meet income thresholds. What's more, she'd need to be enrolled in school or have a job to qualify — but in order to do either of those things, she says she'd need child care first.
According to an emergency order citing changes to the state's child care program this summer, a family of five can earn $1,185 or less a month to qualify.
"My husband said, 'Food and education are two things I will never deny you,'" Shahin said.
Ultimately, the couple took out a loan through December in order to cover the cost of child care. Shahin was given partial financial aid for her classes at NEIU, but is still trying to come up with the rest.
The Shahins are far from the only family who expected to qualify for subsidized childcare this year only to find they didn't. An estimated 90 percent of families seeking assistance this year are expected to be turned away under Rauner's new cutoff.
Eleventh Hour Changes
On Monday, Rauner made major concessions to his emergency act after facing pressure and declining support on the measure from both Democrats and Republicans at the state and city levels.
Protestors and some aldermen at City Hall said Rauner's reversal still didn't fully restore service to all previously qualifying income levels. They also object to the new act upholding new co-payment rates, enacted this summer, that are nearly double what they were last year.
"Now, at the 11th hour, and only after bipartisan public outcry across Illinois over the pain and suffering caused by cuts that have kicked 70,000 kids off child care, Bruce Rauner comes to the table," said Keith Kelleher, president of the Service Employees International Union's Healthcare Illinois.
On Tuesday, legislators will vote on Senate Bill 570, which would return child care requirements to those set previously — and make sure a single power can't make such sweeping decisions again.
State-funded child care centers say they're feeling the pinch too.
Since the emergency order became effective July 1, nine out of every 10 new applicants seeking child care assistance at Howard Area Community Center in Rogers Park have been denied under new eligibility laws, it said, leaving its classes under-enrolled.
"The thing is, we've turned families away because they're not eligible. So it's not like we don't have people coming in the door who want and need child care," said Stephania Koliarakis, director of early childhood programs at HACC.
With fewer enrollees in the program, the community center's projected annual budget, and the money it receives, is also shrinking, Koliarakis said, with layoffs and staff shift reductions already taking place.
Among the most severe eligibility changes is the lowered income requirements for families. Before July 1, a family of two — meaning one guardian and one child — that made $2,456 or less a month could qualify for state benefits. At the current rate, a two-person family can only earn $664 a month, or about $166 a week, in order to be eligible.
It's forcing many families to choose between working a full-time job to keep earning and leaving the workforce altogether to tend to their child or children, Shahin said.
Another major change is the requirement that single parent benefit recipients must prove they have a pending child support case with the child's second parent in order to qualify.
Koliarakis said there are plenty of reasons why one parent may be out of contact with another, citing abuse, harassment, violence and more. Changes to child care law would potentially put those vulnerable parents and children back in harm's way, as is the case in at least one family she is currently helping, she said.
Caught In A Vicious Cycle
Shahin's child care ordeal that began in July has left her emotionally, physically and mentally strained, she said.
She feels guilty that the financial pressures put on her family because of the emergency act make her more prone to irritability, and makes it hard for her to sleep.
Mostly, she said, it's the shame, humiliation and frustration she feels knowing that she is trying to do everything she can to achieve her goals and provide a future for her children — but she said she's being unfairly held back.
"The fact that I was told, 'Why don't you get a job?' Well, I'm looking for a job, but I need someone to watch my kids. So I go to the daycare and say, 'Can I have my kids be enrolled?' but they say you have to be at work or in school," she said.
"So in my head I'm thinking like, do they see what they're doing? It's literally like a rollercoaster that keeps going on and on and on and on, and it's not stopping."
It creates a vicious cycle she said: parents who want to work and save money so they no longer need to rely on state assistance are being told they now make too much money, with arbitrary cutoffs, in Shahin's opinion.
"Why would ... one delusional person [think] that he or she can make the decision for hundreds, if not thousands of people," Shahin said. "The fact that your child cannot enter this program because you make an extra $200 a year? And for that reason you decide to kick my kids out of the program just because you think that's fair in your eyes?"
Looking forward, Shahin said she's optimistic that one of her backup plans will pan out. She was recently awarded a scholarship that covers the cost of one of her three classes at NEIU next semester.
She will also be waiting to hear the outcome of Tuesday's vote to see if she will be taking out another child care loan come January.
She hopes for the next two years she can find a way to pay for part-time classes at the college, after which her children will be in school full-time through Chicago Public Schools.
In the meantime, she's worried — yet hopeful.
"After the sun sets, the sun always comes back up. At the end of every tunnel there is always light. With every negativity there will always be postitivity no matter what happens," Shahin said. "Stay positive, think happy sweet thoughts. Life will not always be hard."
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here:
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: