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