New Mexico Just Became the First State to Make Child Care Free for Nearly All Families - Early Learning Nation

New Mexico Just Became the First State to Make Child Care Free for Nearly All Families

New Mexico, a state long used to landing at the bottom of national rankings for children’s well-being, just made a change that makes it the first in the country: In April, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham announced that it would waive child care subsidy copays and expand eligibility to make care free for one year for nearly all residents. It’s the first state to offer free child care to such a broad swath of its population.

The governor’s announcement came at “a perfect time” for Melissa Martinez, a parent in Albuquerque. A single mother of two children, her child care subsidy copays had been waived during the pandemic. But she was about to have to start paying again in a matter of weeks had the governor not waived copays for nearly all New Mexicans.

Child care “has been a financial challenge for me,” she said. She doesn’t get any child support from her children’s father. Her parents and siblings have all passed away, so she has no family to watch her children while she works. Even finding something that lines up with her work schedule, which requires her to travel all over the state and put in late nights, has been challenging, but she finally found a center that offers 24-hour care that she loves.

“This really has to be just a first step,” said Amber Wallin, executive director of NM Voices for Children. “This announcement is part of a decade-long fight to prioritize kids in public policy and to prioritize funding.”

Not having to pay for child care is “a sigh of relief,” she said. It’ll save her a couple hundred dollars a month, which she’ll be able to put toward household necessities and bills. She’ll be able to get her air conditioning units cleaned and stay up to date with her electricity bill.

Beyond making care cost-free, New Mexico also expanded eligibility for state assistance to families earning up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level, or $111,000 a year for a family of four. The state estimates that 30,000 families like Martinez’s will receive free child care. “We’ve seen the cost of transportation, food, utilities, so many things have gone up for families,” said Elizabeth Groginksy, New Mexico’s cabinet secretary for early childhood education. The copay waiver is a way “to provide financial relief to families.”

CHI St. Joseph’s Children serves hundreds of families with young children. When they got the news about the governor’s announcement, “It was like a sigh of relief,” said Jessa Cowdrey, director of public policy and marketing at St. Joseph’s. Families are juggling a lot between a child care sector that’s still unstable and the overall cost of living rising with inflation. “This really is just finally like catching a little bit of a break.”

It’s also notable, and important, that virtually all families will receive the benefit. Last year, when the state waived copays for low-income families, it also increased eligibility for subsidies to 350 percent of the federal poverty line. But that meant there were families who qualified for help but still had to pay hefty copays. They were so high that some parents had to pay more than they would have paid directly for child care without the subsidy. By waving copays for everyone at the same time as it expanded eligibility even further, the state took care of the problem “in one fell swoop,” said Matthew Henderson, executive director of the education fund at OLÉ.

“What we did was helpful, but it wasn’t helpful enough,” Groginsky said. “We needed to go further.”

The state has also begun the process of revising its copayment schedule, which hasn’t been updated in decades, to simplify it and bring costs down for parents so that they’re not spending more than 7 percent of their incomes on child care. “We don’t want them paying a whole mortgage for child care costs every month,” Groginsky said.

Lujan Grisham said cost-free child care “is the road to a universal child care system.” Groginsky noted that the governor has been advocating for a universal system “from day one,” adding, “This is a key part of that move.”

Advocates agree. “It’s so inclusive,” Cowdrey noted. “This is basically for the majority of New Mexican families.”

The announcement also holds some good news for New Mexico’s child care providers, even if they aren’t receiving direct assistance from it. “It’s always been the case that some parents simply don’t pay their copays,” Henderson noted. Some parents may not be able to afford them every month or might only be able to afford part of the payment. Providers often eat that cost. But with the state taking over the payment of copays, providers are now assured of getting the money they’re due. “It feels like feeding two birds with one seed,” Groginsky said. Lujan Grisham announced that the state will use an additional $10 million in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan to offer grants to people who want to expand or create child care centers as a way to increase the supply of slots, with the goal of creating at least 800 new ones. It had also previously begun reimbursing providers based on how much it actually costs to provide child care, not just on the going market rate.

“It’s all in,” Groginsky said. “We’re working on all fronts.”

The governor’s announcement is clearly a reaction to the pandemic, which disrupted child care on a massive level. “It became clear the economy would fall apart without child care in the last two years,” said Amber Wallin, executive director of NM Voices for Children. “If you’re not supporting that industry, you can’t see economic recovery.”

But it’s also connected to a much longer, larger fight. “This really has to be just a first step,” Wallin said. “This announcement is part of a decade-long fight to prioritize kids in public policy and to prioritize funding.”

In November, New Mexicans will vote on a ballot measure that would change the state constitution to enshrine a right to education not just for grades K-12, but for children ages zero to five as well. That wouldn’t just make it the first state in the country with a right to education for young children. It would have a concrete fiscal impact: it would allow the state to begin devoting $125 million a year to early childhood education from its existing Land Grant Permanent Fund, a pot of money funded by billions of dollars the state generates from fees on the public land it holds in trust that already funds K-12 education. In the ten years that advocates have been pushing for the change, the fund has more than doubled in size. The ballot measure will also devote an additional $75 million for older ages.

The governor has relied on a temporary infusion of federal funding from the American Rescue Plan to fund the waiver of copays for most residents this year. But that funding will start to dry up after next year and can’t sustain such a change in the long-term. “If we want to support these types of programs, expansions in early childhood, we need to pass permanent, stable funding,” Wallin said. “If we don’t pass the Permanent School Fund, if that funding is not injected into our systems in a long-term sustainable way, that means all these gains we’ve made over the past few years are at risk. Our families are at risk of losing those crucial supports.” Lujan Grisham herself has said she wants to use money from the fund to make universal, free child care permanent. Advocates have also promised to push lawmakers to spend the money on better compensation for child care providers and early childhood educators. They want to ensure a minimum wage of $18 an hour, with a ladder that allows them to continue to move up in pay and achieve parity with K-12 teachers based on their educational credentials and years of experience.

Lujan Grisham announced that the state will use an additional $10 million in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan to offer grants to people who want to expand or create child care centers as a way to increase the supply of slots, with the goal of creating at least 800 new ones.

Despite being temporary, the year-long policy change gives New Mexicans a “glimpse,” Cowdrey said, “of what our society can look like with free child care.” And that in turn may motivate them to vote in favor of more funding for the sector to keep it going. It could “fundamentally shift how people think about government,” Wallin said.

The advocates pushing voters to pass the ballot measure in November have been working on the issue for over ten years. To get the question on the ballot, they first had to convince state lawmakers to pass a bill putting it there. Doing so required raising awareness among the state legislature about the importance of development in a child’s first years of life. They had to overcome a “hesitancy to try new things,” Cowdrey said. They also had to overcome fiscal conservatism, particularly among “a handful of senators who stood in the way who just embraced austerity budgeting,” Henderson said. They did that in part by challenging and defeating those lawmakers who acted as roadblocks through primaries in the 2020 elections. “It was the very next legislative session in which we passed it out of the legislature,” Henderson noted.

The campaign to get voters to vote yes is “a continuation, a next phase,” Cowdrey said, of the governor’s announcement. Volunteers are sending text messages, making calls and knocking on people’s doors. They’re using social media to get the word out. Parents are speaking out about how it would help to make child care affordable, while providers are advocating for it as a way to get paid adequately for the critical services that they provide.

So far there’s no organized opposition to passing the ballot measure, although the campaign expects that there may be some lawmakers running for office who decide to oppose it. But voters still have to be educated that the ballot measure even exists and what it could mean. “If voters don’t know about it, don’t flip over that ballot and vote yes, that’s a huge loss,” Cowdrey said.

“We are taking nothing for granted in the next six months,” said Angie Poss, owner of AP Communications LLC, which is working on the campaign. “The impact that this could have is not something that we’re willing to lose.”

Martinez is now volunteering for the campaign to pass the ballot measure. She recently participated in a text bank and sent 1,000 texts to New Mexico voters. She believes that free child care would bring justice to her overlooked community, where she says parents struggle to find good care. “I hope that education comes free to all, because a child’s learning starts at birth,” she said. She wants her state to be the first to assert that idea as a right.

Bryce Covert is an independent journalist writing about the economy. She is a contributing op-ed writer at the New York Times and a contributing writer at The Nation. Her writing has appeared in Time Magazine, the Washington Post, New York Magazine, the New Republic, Slate, and others, and she won a 2016 Exceptional Merit in Media Award from the National Women’s Political Caucus. She has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC, NPR, and other outlets. She was previously Economic Editor at ThinkProgress, Editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog, and a contributor at Forbes. She also worked as a financial reporter and head of the energy sector at mergermarket, an online newswire that is part of the Financial Times group.

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