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KAI RYSSDAL: Politicians are in 24-hour-a-day campaign mode ahead of the elections, but that doesn’t mean they’re discussing what voters really want to hear, what we call The Real Agenda. Topping the list of topics falling by the wayside: Access to affordable health care and, for working parents, childcare. In fact, the government is reducing its funding for low-income childcare assistance, which means many American families aren’t getting the help they need. As Marketplace’s Hillary Wicai reports from Chicago, that’s forcing them to make some unusual and some drastic choices.
HILLARY WICAI: Jennifer works as a receptionist at a real estate company. It’s a good job, with benefits and at the end of last year she got a raise. For a single mom working full-time and going to school part-time, that was great news.
JENNIFER: “I was very happy. I mean I really didn’t have to worry if say my electric bill was a little bit more than it is on an average month.”
Except the good news brought an unexpected result: The small raise meant Jennifer could no longer qualify for assistance with the Illinois childcare program she’d been using. It’s a program funded with federal and state dollars. The childcare that had cost about $2000 a year would now cost $9,000, or about 40% of her salary. With rent, utilities and food, she couldn’t afford it.
JENNIFER: “Without childcare, I either can’t work or I can’t have my daughter. It’s probably one of the hardest choices you can make.”
It really isn’t a choice. As a single mom, Jennifer has to work. So her only option was to send her 5-year-old daughter to live with the girl’s father a couple of hours away in Indiana.
Now Jennifer only sees her daughter on the weekends. On a recent Friday evening the two got caught up in the car.
JENNIFER: “I missed you Cheyenne”
CHEYENNE: “Ohhhh… AND I missed you too! Cause I was begging… when are we going to be there…”
Get a raise, lose your daughter: It didn’t seem fair. And after a couple of months it started to take a toll on them both.
JENNIFER: “Well she seems more upset and it’s just too much for me not to be able to see her on a regular basis. I don’t want her to think I don’t want her there.”
So Jennifer went to see her boss.
JENNIFER: “I ended up taking a pay cut, about $100 per paycheck. It’s horrible.”
But it meant her income would again qualify for childcare assistance and she immediately reapplied for it.
SESSY NYMAN: “That transition from paying a co-payment to paying full cost of care is what we traditionally call the cliff.”
That’s Sessy Nyman with Illinois Action for Children. She says plain and simple, Jennifer fell off the cliff. Nyman’s met parents who refuse raises and promotions because the increase wouldn’t be enough to cover the whole cost of childcare. She’s even met a family that legally separated to keep their kid in childcare after one of the parents got a raise and their combined income was too high for help.
NYMAN: “We’re holding them back. Our idea was to move families into economic self-sufficiency.”
That’s the goal but it’s tough to achieve when the federal government is cutting the aid it gives states. Many states have either set up waiting lists or reduced income eligibility
In Florida, 54,000 children are waiting for childcare assistance. Texas has a list of more than 33,000. Illinois didn’t want waiting lists, but that meant a lower income cut off for assistance.
Maria Whelan is president of Illinois Action. She says it’s good that 200,000 of Illinois’ poorest working get help, but with full federal funding she estimates Illinois would be able to assist another 150,000 children.
Those are the ones Whelan worries about, because their parents have terrible options.
MARIA WHELAN: “Leaving my child in the care of an older sibling, of multiple caregivers, of changing environments for the child . . . bad choices.”
The National Women’s Law Center says only 1 in 7 U.S. children eligible for federal childcare help gets it. In their view, childcare has never been fully funded by the federal government.
Helen Blank, who’s with the Center, remembers when childcare was a Congressional priority in the late 1980s. She says today’s a different story:
HELEN BLANK: It’s more than being ignored. The administration budget that was released last February would result in 400,000 fewer children getting childcare help in 2011 than today. We’re moving backwards.
That’s how Jennifer feels, that she’s moving backwards. She just got approved again for subsidized care. Now her daughter will be able to move back home again, but the end of the year is looming. It’ll soon be time for another annual review and Jennifer can’t afford to get a raise.
In Chicago, I’m Hillary Wicai for Marketplace Money.
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