Proposed cuts to child care assistance will force parents to give up employment and educational opportunities

Eligible families sued department last year over arbitrary denials of assistance

SANTA FE—In a move that will prevent families from getting much needed child care, the State of New Mexico proposes to cut eligibility to child care assistance available to parents who are working or in school. A regulation released yesterday, would reduce families’ eligibility to incomes of 160% and lower of the federal poverty level. Currently, families with incomes up to 200% of the FPL qualify for assistance. The regulation also provides some information used to determine family copays, which continue to be unaffordable according to federal standards.

The proposed rule will reduce the number of families eligible for child care assistance and continue to burden parents with unaffordable copays that force them to go without child care and forego education or employment opportunities. Children, Youth and Families Department data from FY2017, shows a 66% drop in participation in the program once families are charged a copay, beginning with incomes as low as 25% to 50% of the FPL. According to CYFD data, just a third of eligible families participate in the program.

“We urge CYFD to change this proposed regulation so that more, not fewer, families have access to the child care they desperately need. We know that CYFD wants to increase opportunities for New Mexico’s families. One clear way to do that is to help hard-working parents keep their jobs and stay in school by providing help with the exorbitant costs of child care. Unfortunately, too few families qualify, and those who do must come up with copays that are so high that many are forced to leave the program and give up on careers and their education or resort to unreliable and unlicensed care,” said Maria Griego, supervising attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

Griego added, “We are concerned that the state is cutting benefits when enrollment has decreased. We need safeguards that ensure child care copayments are actually affordable so families can benefit from the program. This means adequate funding at the legislature that is based on the economic reality facing New Mexico families. The state should seek supplemental funding to prevent cuts right now.”

CYFD agreed to issue regulations that detail eligibility requirements for the Child Care Assistance Program following a lawsuit filed by Organizers in the Land of Enchantment (OLÉ) and families represented by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. The lawsuit, Torres v. Jacobson, argued that the department illegally reduced eligibility and determined the amount of child care assistance without going through the public regulatory process required by law.

After the lawsuit was filed, CYFD immediately increased eligibility to 200% of the federal poverty level, which it now proposes to cut.

“When CYFD extended the eligibility requirements, it opened the doors for more parents out there struggling to find childcare and now they are looking to close that door again,” said Brian Gelepsie, OLÉ member. “The state is messing with families’ livelihoods when families have to decide between paying for childcare or having a roof over their heads. Our parents and children deserve better.”

The proposed Child Care Assistance Program regulation:

  • Cuts eligibility to 160% FPL—even though enrollment in the program is dropping.
  • Sets child care copayments at unaffordable levels and fails to explain the details of how copayments are calculated. For example, the department applies a 10% increase to base copayments for every case, but this is not in regulation.
  • Does not clearly articulate how CYFD calculates income to determine eligibility or how the application process works.
  • Does not require applications and eligibility documents to be in languages other than English.

A public hearing on the rule is scheduled to take place in Santa Fe on July 8, 2019.

Families sue CYFD over illegal denial of child care assistance

SANTA FE—Access to quality and affordable child care is critical for working families and parents who are in school. Unfortunately, the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department has been illegally and arbitrarily denying eligible families much needed child care assistance. Several parents and OLÉ, represented by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, sued the agency late yesterday in First Judicial District Court for violating New Mexico’s state laws and constitution.

“We should all be able to go to work knowing we’re leaving our children in good hands,” said Annette Torres, one of the plaintiffs in the Torres v Jacobson lawsuit. “I really cannot tell you how devastated I was when CYFD denied me child care assistance. It’s just been a tremendous struggle to make ends meet. Without child care, I wouldn’t be able to work.”

Families represented in the lawsuit include a parent who will not be able to return to her managerial job because she cannot afford full time child care. Instead, she will take another job with a different employer for less hours and lower wages. Other parents in the lawsuit are preschool teachers and a medical assistant who cannot afford the ever changing and unpredictable co-pays, some as high as $400 a month, that CYFD assigns to them.

The Torres v Jacobson lawsuit claims that CYFD illegally established a policy of denying child care assistance to families with incomes over 150 percent of the federal poverty levela yearly income of $31,170 for a family of threewithout publishing a regulation or going through the required public comment and hearing process. CYFD’s own regulations state that the eligibility for child care assistance is considerably higher, set at 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Families still experience financial hardship even with incomes above 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

CYFD also illegally turns away families looking for child care assistance without informing them of their right to challenge a denial of benefits.

“We know that the earliest years in children’s lives are the most important in their development and lay the foundation for all that is to come,” said Monica Ault, attorney with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “All working families need access to affordable childcare and preschool that they can trust. Families denied child care assistance have had to turn down work opportunities, drop out of school, or are forced to seek alternative care that is often low-quality and not developmentally appropriate for their children.”  

When CYFD does provide child care assistance, it illegally forces families to shell out unaffordable co-pays without explanation of how it determined the amounts. CYFD’s methods for calculating copayment amounts are arbitrary and have not been established through a public and transparent rulemaking process as required by law. The agency will not explain how it determines copayments beyond saying that the computer system does it.

The federal government has established seven percent of income as a benchmark of affordability for child care assistance. However, CYFD sets co-payments considerably higher for a large share of families. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit shoulder child care costs of over 10 percent of family income.

“Our family has had to make many sacrifices so that my wife and I can go to work knowing that our children are getting safe, quality care,” said John Cambra whose wife is a plaintiff. “It’s been incredibly difficult to make things work. Our co-pays were so high that we’ve had to go without transportation and ask our families to help us with things like diapers and wipes for our children.”

“One often insurmountable barrier to financial security for many families is the high cost of child care, and this is especially true for low-wage workers,” added Traeshaun Buffin a community organizer at OLÉ. “The astronomical costs prevent tens of thousands of New Mexican families with children from accessing meaningful work and educational opportunities. CYFD should stop denying eligible families the child care assistance they need. CYFD needs to adopt standards with public input to make the program affordable and predictable.”

The complaint can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/torres-v-jacobson-first-amended-complaint-with-exhibits/

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The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty is dedicated to advancing economic and social justice through education, advocacy, and litigation. We work with low-income New Mexicans to improve living conditions, increase opportunities, and protect the rights of people living in poverty.

OLÉ is a non-profit, who uses grassroots organizing within the local community of working families in New Mexico. Our members and staff work together to strengthen our communities through social advocacy and economic reform, using issue-based campaigns and electoral engagement to ensure that working families are playing a critical role in shaping New Mexico’s future with a united voice.