Court blocks attempt to end lawsuit on food and Medicaid assistance


LAS CRUCES—A federal district judge ruled today that the New Mexico Human Services Department must continue to comply with a court order requiring it to fix systemic problems with processing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicaid applications. 

Judge Kenneth John Gonzales wrote in his order, “New Mexicans, now more than ever, rely on the timely and accurate processing of SNAP and Medicaid applications to obtain much needed help.” 

“This pandemic continues to ravage families’ health and their ability to work,” said Teague Gonzalez, director of Public Benefits at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which is representing the plaintiffs in the case. “It’s crucial that HSD comply with the law and remove unnecessary barriers to food and healthcare assistance.”

The long-running Hatten-Gonzales lawsuit was originally filed in 1989. While some progress has been made, the court requires a case review to determine if HSD has addressed entrenched problems in administering food and medical assistance. 

In 2016, HSD whistleblowers testified that there was a statewide policy of falsifying information on emergency benefits applications so the agency could pass federal audits and deadlines. This illegal policy resulted in thousands of New Mexican families going without the food assistance they needed.

In 2018, a case review found ongoing errors in the processing of food and medical assistance cases.

In its order, the court found HSD’s request to end the court’s oversight of fixes to the problems “premature” and “counterproductive” and “threatens to set back the progress the parties have made to this point.” 

The judge ordered a case file review of Medicaid and SNAP applications to continue and that parties engage in good faith negotiations. 

“We were surprised that the state’s counsel thought it appropriate to file this motion right now when so many New Mexicans have even more need for help,” said the Center’s Gonzalez. “We will continue our efforts to ensure New Mexicans can access food and healthcare assistance in close coordination with the court appointed Special Master and HSD.”

Judge Kenneth Gonzales’s order can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/hatten-gonzales-v-scrase-order-staying-termination-of-consent-decree-2020-08-21/

The jointly developed corrective action plan can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/hatten-gonzales-v-scrace-joint-motion-to-approve-two-corrective-action-plans-2019-07-10/

Immigrant rights organizations denounce Sheriff Gonzales’ collaboration with Trump’s shadow police force


ALBUQUERQUE –  Bernalillo County Sheriff, Manuel Gonzales III, announced Tuesday afternoon he will meet with President Trump and Attorney General William Barr at the White House on Wednesday to discuss BCSO’s efforts to “combat crime.” This news comes after CBS News published a memo detailing that the Department of Homeland Security is considering Albuquerque as one of a few cities where more than 175 federal officers could be deployed.

The following is a joint statement by community groups in Bernalillo County expressing opposition to Sheriff Gonzales’ meeting with the Trump administration and the possibility of deploying paramilitary forces in NM:

Systemic racism pervades every institution of government, and unfortunately law enforcement is often its executor as proven by their systemic violence, brutality, abuse, and killings of Black and Brown lives across the country as a way to carry out a white supremacist agenda.

We unequivocally denounce the possible deployment of Trump’s federal paramilitary force in a majority community of color; this action is simply another damaging tactic laced with xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiment that does not make families safe. It is a ploy to distract the nation from the failures of the Trump administration during a global pandemic while further descending into a totalitarian regime in the U.S.

The relationship between local law enforcement and our communities is already a fractured one as our city and county have experienced a deep and persistent history of police brutality and abuse. Most recently highlighted with the shooting of an unarmed protester by Steven Baca, the son of a former Bernalillo County Sheriff.

Sheriff Manuel Gonzales’ meeting with the Trump administration will only exacerbate the distrust and fear our families carry day to day, keeping domestic abuse survivors or victims of wage theft silent out of fear of deportation.

We must denounce any attempt to deploy a paramilitary force to our city. We strongly object to the meeting between the Bernalillo County Sheriff and the Trump administration, and we strongly object to the deployment of this paramilitary force into our county and our city.

Signed: NM Dream Team, El CENTRO De Igualdad y Derechos, Partnership for Community Action, Encuentro, Organizers in the Land of Enchantment, Center for Civic Policy, New Mexico Immigrant Law Center, New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, Enlace Comunitario

Yazzie/Martinez education lawsuit moves forward!

SANTA FE—First Judicial District Court Judge Matthew Wilson denied the State of New Mexico’s motion to dismiss the landmark Yazzie/Martinez ruling today, which found that the state was violating the public school students’ right to a sufficient education. The judge noted that the state, by its own admission, is not fulfilling its constitutional duty to provide a sufficient education to all students.

The judge stated, “The state cannot be deemed to have complied with this court’s order until it shows that the necessary programs and reforms are being provided to all at risk students to ensure that they have the opportunity to be college and career ready. There is a lack of evidence in this case that the defendants have substantially satisfied this court’s express orders regarding all at risk students. The court’s injunction requires comprehensive educational reform that demonstrates substantial improvement of student outcomes so that students are actually college and career ready.”

The judge continued, “The court agrees with the plaintiffs’ counsel that to dismiss this action now while implementation and compliance are merely in their initial stages would undermine the years of work by this court and the parties and leave the children of New Mexico in an educational system that may be below constitutional standards.”

The judge also stated that “the court will maintain jurisdiction in this case until defendants have actually overhauled the system and complied with the constitutional requirements.” 

In reaction to the decision today, Wilhelmina Yazzie, a plaintiff in the Yazzie lawsuit said “In our culture, children are sacred, and I’m overjoyed that the fight for their education will go on. Even before the pandemic, our schools were not getting what they needed. There weren’t enough books to go around then and now it’s even worse. Our teachers are doing all they can, but they can’t even reach all their students because so many families, especially those that live in rural areas, don’t have internet access. Unfortunately, we just can’t trust the state to do the right thing without the court intervening.” 

Yazzie continued, “It’s time for our leaders to be courageous and make real changes for our kids. All across the country, people are standing up against the inequities caused by hundreds of years of systemic racism. It’s time for our state to stop fighting the lawsuit and instead address the inequities in our schools.”

Judge Wilson approved a motion from the Martinez plaintiffs that allows time for discovery of evidence to investigate the state’s compliance with the court ruling.

Yazzie plaintiffs also asked the court at the hearing to order the state to develop a comprehensive plan to overhaul the public education system. The judge decided not to order a plan now and will wait to entertain the motion until after discovery is completed and more information is available. 

In 2018, the court ordered the state to provide educational programs, services, and funding to schools to prepare students so they are college and career ready. In October 2019, the Yazzie Plaintiffs filed a motion asking the court to order the state to develop a plan to come into compliance with the court’s ruling. In March 2020, the state filed a motion asking the court to dismiss the Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico lawsuit. The Yazzie case was brought on behalf of families and six school districts. 

Almost two years have passed since the landmark court ruling but very little has changed for students and families at the heart of the case – low-income families, students with disabilities, English language learners, and Native American students, who collectively make up roughly 80% of the New Mexico student population.

In their motion for a compliance plan the Yazzie plaintiffs provided the court evidence that almost two years after the court’s ruling students still lack access to technology and culturally relevant materials; thousands of English language learners lack certified teachers; extended learning and summer school still is not available for all students who need these programs; more than 25,000 three- and four-year-olds still don’t have access to quality Pre-K; and the state still fails to fund or implement the Bilingual Multicultural Education Act (1973), the Indian Education Act (2003), or the Hispanic Education Act (2010).

“We are relieved that the case will continue. Education costs a lot more during a health crisis. We didn’t have the support we needed before COVID-19, but now we really are in crisis,” said Mike Hyatt, Superintendent of Gallup McKinley County Schools. “Without question, student learning in our district, which is predominantly Native American, and across New Mexico will suffer this coming year because the state is not funding school districts based on our needs.”

The state’s motion to dismiss the case argued that the court should trust the state government, legislators, and the governor to fix the school system. Yazzie plaintiffs argued that politics have failed our children for many years and the state continues to violate the law even after three legislative sessions since the landmark court ruling. 

At the recent special session, the legislature passed a budget that underfunds education overall and will force schools to choose between spending on necessary changes to keep kids safe and able to continue learning during the COVID-19 pandemic or basic things like instructional materials and adequate salaries for educators. The federal CARES Act money will not cover all the COVID-related costs such as protective equipment for staff and students, reconfiguring bathrooms, ensuring more teaching staff in school, and online instruction, yet the legislature wants it to also be used for basic education programs.

“The pandemic is compounding deep and ongoing educational inequities that are a direct result of decades of complacency by the state that continued even after the court ruling,” said Preston Sanchez, an attorney with ACLU-NM working in cooperation with New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty that represents the Yazzie plaintiffs. (Sanchez was formerly staff with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty when the litigation began). “Now more than ever, it’s important that the court continues to ensure the state is accountable to New Mexico’s students and families.”

A few days ago, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, released its annual report on child well being: New Mexico again ranks last.  

The Yazzie plaintiffs’ response brief with exhibits—including declarations in opposition to State of New Mexico’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit by the All Pueblo Council of Governors, Mescalero Apache Tribe, Navajo Nation’s Department of Dine Education, and Jicarilla Apache Nation (Exhibits A-D, pages 48-55)—can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/yazzie-plaintiffs-response-states-mtd-with-exhibits-a-j-2020-05-01/

The February 2019 final judgment and order in the lawsuit can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/D-101-CV-2014-00793-Final-Judgment-and-Order-NCJ-1.pdf

Hearing on Yazzie/Martinez education lawsuit to take place Monday

Plaintiffs will argue continued court oversight is necessary

SANTA FE—On Monday, June 29, in a video court hearing, Yazzie plaintiffs will argue that it is critical the court continue to hold the state accountable to the landmark 2018 court ruling that found the state was violating students’ rights to a sufficient education. They will also argue that the State of New Mexico should be required to develop a comprehensive plan to overhaul the public education system.

The hearing will be before Judge Matthew Wilson of the First Judicial District Court. 

The state filed a motion to dismiss the case in March even though, by its own admission, the state is not fulfilling its constitutional duty to provide a sufficient education to all students.

WHAT:
Hearing on plaintiff and defendant motions in Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico 


WHO:

  • Judge Matthew Wilson
  • Counsel for Yazzie plaintiffs, New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty cooperating attorneys 
  • Counsel for Martinez plaintiffs, Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) attorneys
  • Counsel for the State of New Mexico

WHEN: 
Monday, June 29, 2020, 1:00 – 5:00 p.m.

REMOTE ACCESS TO COURT PROCEEDINGS:
Because of the COVID-19 health crisis, in person viewing of the hearing is not available. 

Access by telephone:

  • 1-316-536-0667
  • Pin:  956818702#

Access by video: 

The Yazzie plaintiffs’ reply brief with exhibits—including declarations in opposition to State of New Mexico’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit by the All Pueblo Council of Governors, Mescalero Apache Tribe, Navajo Nation’s Department of Dine Education, and Jicarilla Apache Nation (Exhibits A-D, pages 48-55)—can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/yazzie-plaintiffs-response-states-mtd-with-exhibits-a-j-2020-05-01/

The final ruling in the lawsuit can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/D-101-CV-2014-00793-Final-Judgment-and-Order-NCJ-1.pdf

Groups ask governor for rent relief fund to prevent homelessness

Thousands of New Mexicans can’t pay rent due to pandemic-related economic downturn 

ALBUQUERQUE—To prevent a dramatic spike in homelessness as New Mexico navigates the COVID-19 crisis and its economic aftermath, social justice and housing organizations asked Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham this week to prioritize legislation creating a rent relief fund at the upcoming special session. Their letter also asks her to support a legislative moratorium on evictions and expanded protections for low-income homeowners.  

“If we don’t get some help with rent soon, I don’t know what’s going to happen to me and my family,” said Allyssa Garcia who lives in Albuquerque. “I’ve worked hard my whole life, but I have lupus, which puts me at high risk of getting the virus. I had to cut my hours back. My daughter, who has a heart defect, lost her disability for awhile. I had to appeal to the Social Security Administration to get it back. There just hasn’t been enough money to pay rent. Now my landlord has evicted me. They can’t force me to move out right now because of the health emergency, but once things open up, my three children and I might find ourselves on the street.”

New Mexico was already struggling with a crippling housing crisis before the health pandemic. In 2019, the state experienced the highest increase in chronic homelessness in the nation–up 57.6% since 2018. The most recent data from the Mortgage Finance Authority shows that 50% of New Mexico’s renters are housing cost burdened, meaning they spend upwards of 30% of their income on housing costs.  

Housing relief programs like the one the New Mexico advocates are calling for have already been established across the country to support local recovery. 

“Everyone deserves access to safe, stable housing, especially during a pandemic,” said Maria Griego, director of Economic Equity at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “Unfortunately, temporary Supreme Court rules and federal moratoria only postpone evictions. While no one can be removed from their homes immediately, homelessness will increase as soon as the state of emergency ends.”

Griego added, “As New Mexico families face the COVID-19 crisis and its financial aftermath, including record levels of unemployment, we urge the state to actively respond to the real threat of a dramatic spike in homelessness and for the governor to put responsive legislation on her call at the special session.” 

“We need our elected officials to match the efforts of the people organizing on the ground,” said Tomás Rivera, executive director of Chainbreaker Collective. “Many people hardest hit by the pandemic live in neighborhoods already teetering on the edge of widespread displacement and gentrification. Without bold housing relief measures, the COVID-19 crisis may be the push that will tip whole neighborhoods over that edge. People will be forced into the street from neighborhoods where they have deep roots.” 

The groups and individuals that sent the letter to the governor include the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, Chainbreaker Collective, ABC Community School Partnership, Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless, Catholic Charities (Archdiocese of Santa Fe), Disability Rights New Mexico, Enlace Comunitario, Native American Disability Law Center, New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, Prosperity Works, Santa Fe Housing Action Coalition, Senior Citizens’ Law Office, Inc., United South Broadway Corporation, Elizabeth Elia, and Karen J. Meyers.

The letter to the governor can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Group-Letter-to-Governor-housing-relief.pdf

Court oversight is essential to protecting students’ constitutional right to education, charge Yazzie plaintiffs

SANTA FE—The State of New Mexico, by its own admission, is not fulfilling its constitutional duty to provide a sufficient education to all students and should be required to develop a comprehensive plan to overhaul the public education system as soon as possible, charged the Yazzie plaintiffs in a brief filed today with the First Judicial District Court. The brief argues that it is critical the court continue to hold the state accountable to the 2018 landmark court ruling that found the state was violating students’ rights. 

The brief was in response to the state’s motion, filed mid March, asking the court to dismiss the Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico lawsuit. The Yazzie case was brought on behalf of families and six school districts. 

“In the best and worst of times, education is fundamental to our future. Now more than ever, with an uncertain economy and an upcoming special legislative session, we need the court to ensure the state is accountable to New Mexico’s students and families,” said Gail Evans, lead counsel for the Yazzie plaintiffs. “Almost two years have passed since the court ruling but very little has changed for students and families at the heart of the case–low-income families, students with disabilities, English language learners, and Native American students, who collectively make up roughly 80% of the New Mexico student population.”  

“The state’s lack of action has been laid bare by the COVID-19 crisis, which has further aggravated the deep and ongoing educational inequities across New Mexico,” continued Evans. “Our public education system still lacks the basic infrastructure necessary to provide equitable access to technology and reliable internet, much less culturally and linguistically appropriate instructional materials. The state needs to act now to transform our schools. It’s failure to do so has caused irreparable harm to students and the future of our state.”

In addition to the lack of technology access and culturally relevant materials, the brief provides evidence that thousands of English language learners still lack certified teachers; extended learning and summer school still is not available for all students who need them; more than 25,000 three- and four-year-olds still don’t have access to quality Pre-K; and the state still fails to fund or implement the Bilingual Multicultural Education Act (1973), the Indian Education Act (2003), and the Hispanic Education Act (2010).

The state’s motion to dismiss the case argues that the court should trust the state government, legislators, and the governor to fix the school system. Yazzie plaintiffs argue that politics have failed our children and trusting the state to follow its own laws has not worked in the last several decades or in the last two legislative sessions after the landmark court ruling. 

The Yazzie brief states, “Considering that the State has not fulfilled its duties before this Court intervened, it certainly cannot be left on its own to fulfill its duties now that the Court has found that the Constitutional rights are at stake. Rather than spending its time drafting long motions to dismiss for this Court, the State could have been developing a compliance plan for this Court.

There will be a hearing June 29 on the Yazzie plaintiffs’ and state’s motions.

The reply brief can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/yazzie-plaintiffs-response-states-mtd-with-exhibits-a-j-2020-05-01/

The final ruling in the lawsuit can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/D-101-CV-2014-00793-Final-Judgment-and-Order-NCJ-1.pdf

Federal benefits recipients must act by WEDNESDAY to get stimulus payments for children

Trump administration gives tightest deadline to people most in need of relief during COVID-19 crisis

ALBUQUERQUE—Social Security and Railroad Retirement benefit recipients with children who do not file taxes must file a form by tomorrow at 10 am MST to receive their full stimulus payment in a timely manner. Benefits recipients must act immediately to receive the additional $500 stimulus payment this year for any eligible dependent children. The IRS announced this tight deadline on Monday afternoon.

“We are horrified by the IRS’s sudden announcement late yesterday forcing a large category of people to file a form by tomorrow morning to get stimulus payments for their children in a timely way,” said Lindsay Cutler, attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “This is not enough time for most people to even hear about this new requirement, much less complete the form. Other options should be made available. People who receive Social Security and Railroad Retirement benefits programs should fill out the IRS Portal immediately to ensure they get their payment this year.”

To receive the $500 stimulus payments for children this calendar year, individuals must file a form on the IRS Portal by tomorrow morning at 10 am if they: 

  • Receive Social Security retirement benefits, including Social Security Disability Insurance and Railroad Retirement benefits;
  • Have a dependent child/children under the age of 17 who qualify for the $500 Economic Impact (stimulus) payment; and
  • Did not file a 2018 or 2019 tax return.

The IRS Portal for non filers can be found here: https://www.irs.gov/coronavirus/non-filers-enter-payment-info-here  

More information from the IRS is available here: https://www.irs.gov/newsroom/ssa-rrb-recipients-with-eligible-children-need-to-act-by-wednesday-to-quickly-add-money-to-their-automatic-economic-impact-payment-irs-asks-for-help-in-the-plus-500-push

Paid sick leave, halting evictions & benefits terminations necessary to mitigate COVID-19 impact on New Mexicans

Groups provide state leaders multiple strategies to protect New Mexico’s residents

ALBUQUERQUE—Advocacy groups from across the state urged New Mexico’s leaders to exercise their emergency powers and provide emergency assistance, access to healthcare, and other relief to stem the rising financial insecurity and income inequality caused by the coronavirus crises. 

The recommendations were sent to Governor Lujan Grisham, Attorney General Balderas, Chief Justice Nakamura, Speaker Egolf, Senator Papen, Mayor Keller, Mayor Webber, Mayor Hull, and Mayor Miyagishima. 

“Our state’s response must focus on and involve the communities already experiencing the impact of economic inequality,” states the letter sent by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, Forward Together, Strong Families New Mexico, Lutheran Advocacy Ministry – New Mexico, New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, New Mexico Voices for Children, NM Comunidades en Acción y de Fé – CAFé, Health Action New Mexico, United South Broadway, Fair Lending Center, Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP), Catholic Charities – Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico Social Justice Equity Institute, McKinley Co. Assn. of Retired Educators, and multiple individuals.

Recommendations include:

Protect workers 

  • Enact emergency paid sick leave and pass local paid sick leave ordinances that guarantee paid sick leave for all workers. 
  • Eliminate the one-week delay in unemployment benefits. 

Ensure economic security 

  • Create a new emergency income assistance program. 
  • Stay wage garnishments and bank levies in the courts. 
  • Streamline access to Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and cash assistance for workers who have lost their jobs by allowing enrollment when filing for unemployment insurance. 
  • Extend eligibility, suspend work requirements and sanctions, and delay all public benefits recertification requirements. 

Healthcare for all 

  • Provide for immediate access to healthcare through Medicaid for all Medicaid applicants.  
  • Assure immigrant communities that screening and treatment for COVID-19 do not impact public charge determinations and will not have immigration consequences. 
  • Ensure hospitals and clinics are safe spaces regardless of immigration status.  
  • Require employers maintain health insurance benefits regardless of reduction of work hours resulting from the pandemic. 
  • Call for a federal amendment to the Medicaid statutes to add a state option extending coverage to the uninsured for all medical services in connection with COVID-19. 

Moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, towing, and utility shut offs 

  • Stay all court eviction and foreclosure proceedings statewide to slow the spread of COVID-19 and prevent an increase in homelessness in New Mexico.   
  • Create a rent relief fund to help impacted families. 
  • Stop all utility shut offs. 
  • Place a moratorium on towing vehicles. 

Include all New Mexicans in the response to this crisis 

  • Protect New Mexicans without homes by providing emergency resources to shelters and on-location medical care.
  • Local governments should affirm their institutional commitment to all immigrant community members who may be targets of xenophobic behavior. 
  • Reduce the number of people in custody and release nonviolent defendants and people serving sentences for nonviolent offenses. 

The groups commend government officials and state leaders for the expedient initial steps already taken to mitigate the harm New Mexicans are facing. However, the groups maintain that much remains to be done without delay to protect the wellbeing of all New Mexico’s families.  

The full recommendations can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/strategies-to-mitigate-covid-19-impact-on-nm-2020-03-18/

State admits students lack a sufficient education in motion to dismiss Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit

ALBUQUERQUE—In a motion asking the First Judicial District Court to dismiss the Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico lawsuit on Friday, the state acknowledged it continues to violate students’ right to a sufficient education. Legal counsel for the Yazzie plaintiff families pledge to continue litigation to hold the state accountable to comply with the court’s landmark ruling.  

The following can be attributed to Gail Evans, lead counsel for the Yazzie plaintiffs in the Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico lawsuit.

“The state knows it must make comprehensive changes to fix the education system for our students, but over a year and a half since the ruling, little to nothing has changed for the students at the heart of the case—low-income, English language learners, Native American, and students with disabilities, who account for about 80% of New Mexico’s student population. 

“In asking the judge to dismiss the case, the state does not argue that it has fixed our schools. The state simply can’t refute the stark fact that it has a very long way to go to provide our students with a sufficient education. Despite two legislative sessions since the court ruled, the state has not come close to adequately addressing long running problems. 

“We cannot expect that the political system will simply shift course and do right by our students. The court has to intervene when politics fail, and politics have clearly failed New Mexico’s children for decades. As long as the state does not provide children the educational opportunities they need, the Yazzie plaintiffs will continue to fight for our students.”

There will be a hearing on the Yazzie plaintiffs’ motion to hold the state in compliance with the court’s order and develop a plan on March 27 before Judge Matthew Wilson.

The Yazzie plaintiff’s reply brief in Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/yazzie-plaintiffs-reply-compliance-motion-2020-01-31/

Reply brief exhibits can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/exhibits-for-yazzie-reply-brief-2020-01-31/

A report by economist Steve Barro on public education funding trends in New Mexico can be found here:  http://nmpovertylaw.org/report-nm-edu-funding-trends-barro-2020-01-30/

The final ruling in the lawsuit can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/D-101-CV-2014-00793-Final-Judgment-and-Order-NCJ-1.pdf

Report shows gaps in New Mexico’s early childhood agenda

ALBUQUERQUE—According to a new report, more investment in home visiting, child care assistance, cash assistance, and minimum wage enforcement would significantly improve New Mexico families’ stability and economic outlook. The report, “New Mexico’s Infant Toddler Agenda,” was authored by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP).

“Every child should have the opportunity to succeed in life, yet nearly a third of New Mexico’s 70,000 infants and toddlers live in poverty. Across the board, state investments are too low in programs that address economic barriers and support opportunities for families with young children,” said Sovereign Hager, legal director at NMCLP. “Every family should have safe and affordable child care, sound parental support, and resources to pay for necessities. But there are huge gaps between what programs work for families and what our state funds.” 

Children’s growth and development are shaped by early life experiences. Good health, empowered families, and positive early learning environments foster children’s physical, intellectual, and social-emotional development. Culturally and linguistically appropriate programs and policies that are developed in collaboration with local communities are also essential to their success. 

Home visiting empowers parents 

In New Mexico, home visiting services provide support, coaching, and resources for parents from trained professionals during pregnancy and in children’s earliest years. Home visiting improves children’s mental and physical health, supports school readiness, and helps keep children and families safe. 

However, the report notes the lack of home visiting programs in New Mexico and that few programs are culturally and linguistically relevant to the state’s diverse communities. In New Mexico, an estimated 157,600 children—half of whom are infants and toddlers—were eligible for home visiting programs in 2017 but only approximately 5,000 slots were available in 2018. 

The report recommends that New Mexico fully leverage Medicaid dollars for home visiting and expand its current pilot program to include all Medicaid-eligible families.

Child care assistance provides high-quality child care and early education opportunities

The state’s Child Care Assistance Program makes it possible for low-income parents to work or go to school while providing their children with a safe place to learn and grow. The report notes that when families have access to child care assistance, they are better able to access high quality child care and have more resources for basic needs. They also have far fewer child care related work disruptions.

Unfortunately, even after increases to the program’s budget this year, the vast majority of families in New Mexico face high out of pocket costs even when they get assistance. Eighty one percent of families who receive child care assistance in New Mexico had to pay a share of costs in 2017 compared to the national rate of 62%.

Data shows that too many families simply cannot afford to participate in the program. Enrollment falls for families earning between 25% and 50% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines—when New Mexico starts imposing unaffordable co-payments.

The report recommends New Mexico eliminate co-payments for families living below 100% FPG and cap out of pocket costs at affordable levels for other families.

Families also face a steep “cliff effect” when their incomes exceed the eligibility threshold for the program. In many cases, this leaves families much worse off than they were before an increase in wages.

In New Mexico, families can earn a maximum of 250% of the FPG (equivalent to $53,325 for a family of three in FY 2019) before becoming ineligible for assistance. The report recommends tiered eligibility policies to smooth the cliff effect by gradually reducing assistance as income rises.

Increasing and enforcing the minimum wage supports economically stable families 

New Mexico’s minimum wage increase went into effect in January 2020. The report notes that an estimated 100,600 children will be helped by their parents’ increased wages.

However, workers can’t benefit from a minimum wage increase if the law isn’t enforced. Too many New Mexico workers are paid less than the minimum wage because employers violate the law. The New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions has a statutory obligation to enforce the law, but DWS is underfunded and overwhelmed by a backlog of over 1,800 wage complaints. One in five workers has been waiting for their case to be investigated or to be paid wages owed for over a year and a half. Some have been waiting as long as eight years. 

The report recommends the state strategically and robustly enforce the law to maximize benefits to workers and their families.

Improving cash assistance to support economically stable families

Increased income during early childhood is associated with improved health, better school performance, and even increased earnings later in a child’s life. Even a small amount of additional income can be a stabilizing force, allowing parents to purchase diapers, groceries, or other household necessities. 

Although many families with low incomes could benefit from cash assistance, which provides a temporary monthly benefit and work supports for parents, only a small percent in New Mexico qualify for help because of limited eligibility, ineffective work requirements, and time limits for children. 

The assistance itself is minimal and does not provide enough for families to live on while seeking employment. 

The report recommends New Mexico improve its cash assistance program by offering flexibility, exemptions from work requirements, and allowing children to receive benefits when parents become ineligible or reach time limits.

“Strong investments in programs that impact early childhood are proven to increase well being and economic opportunity for families, but too many of New Mexico’s families with infants and toddlers aren’t able to access programs that would help them the most,” said Hager. “Our state government has an obligation to fix this and must prioritize an agenda that focuses on opportunity for families with young children. This means adequate resources towards programs and services for families with young children, investment in culturally and linguistically relevant programming, and work across agencies to streamline and integrate eligibility and enrollment processes.”

“New Mexico’s Infant Toddler Agenda” can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/CLASP_NewMexico_infants_brochure3.pdf