Illinois Neglects Child Care Payments for Needy Families

Single parents face countless unique challenges, many of which are tied to balancing the family checkbook. Sometimes this means forgoing family outings, such as going to the movies, to be able to afford groceries for the week. Other times it means taking the bus instead of driving to save on gas.

But one of the most difficult decisions single parents face is how to afford child care while continuing to work. Illinois' Child Care Assistance Program, or CCAP, provides subsidies to qualifying families - many of them single-parent families - for some or all of their day care costs.

But on Jan. 22, Illinois' Department of Human Services, or DHS, posted the following child care alert on its website:

"The Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) continues to operate with federal funding; however, providers will experience payment delays after February 1 due to a lack of state funding.

"We sincerely regret the hardship this lack of funding causes."

Now, families who rely on this program will lose out. Some claim that tax hikes are needed to fill the funding gap.

But is a "lack of funding" solely to blame, as the DHS suggests?

It's hard to know. For example, it's unclear what effect program utilization - a large increase in the number of clients, perhaps - has had, because the DHS does not publish real-time program data. The state doesn't have solid numbers on essential statistics, such as how many families receive subsidies and the average amount of those subsidies, so it's incredibly difficult to know if the DHS is doing a good job managing the CCAP.

Much like the rest of Illinois state government, it's possible the CCAP has adequate funding but has suffered from fiscal mismanagement.

A look at expenditures shows CCAP administrators have been spending at a much faster pace this year than usual.

In fiscal year 2013, CCAP paid $368.4 million to child care providers. In fiscal year 2014, CCAP paid $403.5 million to providers.

In the first six months of fiscal year 2015, however, the state has already spent $224.4 million on provider payments - a 66 percent increase from 2014, when provider payments totaled $135.4 million in the first six months of the year. At this rate, the CCAP will pay out more than $448.8 million for provider payments for fiscal year 2015.

But the state and federal funding available to the program is $425.9 million - $23 million less than the program needs to pay providers.

In short, the state officials who put together the current budget last spring knew they were shorting the program's expected outlays and instead washed their hands of the looming challenge.

Is this accelerated spending going toward more families entering the program? Is the DHS paying for services it didn't have the money to cover last year? Again, we don't know.

At the very least, the DHS needs to become more transparent, making information on payments and other performance data available on its website.

Illinois families, many in dire circumstances, are on the brink of losing support for child care. It's time everyone got answers about the games being played with the CCAP.