SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers will have a $25 million question to answer when they begin crafting a new budget next year.
Should the state send more money into a program that provides child care for low-income families, or is the money better-spent elsewhere?
The debate comes as New Mexico ramps up spending on a variety of early childhood programs and evaluates their effectiveness.
Lawmakers have heard conflicting reports this year on child care assistance – the state program that provides a subsidy to low-income families so they can send their children to day care while the parents work or attend school.
Nonpartisan analysts for the Legislative Finance Committee reported in August that child care assistance hasn’t shown evidence of boosting academic achievement, though they acknowledged it has other benefits for working families. They were much more positive about pre-kindergarten as a tool to close the achievement gap among students of different ethnic and demographic groups.
But Monique Jacobson, secretary of the state Children, Youth and Families Department, has approached legislators with her own data: Children in the program, she says, are far less likely to be the victims of repeat maltreatment – two substantiated allegations of abuse or neglect within six months – than the general population.
And it has the added benefit of encouraging parents to work or attend school – something that can make a lasting difference for adults and children alike, she said.
“For families, having wrap-around child care is in many cases what makes it possible for them to participate in pre-K,” Jacobson said in an interview. And “we know it’s really important that parents are in a position where they can work consistent hours or go to school.”
But it’s expensive.
Jacobson is asking the Legislature to approve an extra $25 million next year for child care assistance – a 16 percent increase, to about $134 million a year.
The boost is necessary, she said, just to keep up with enrollment trends and avoid cuts.
Generally, to enter the program, a family has to make less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $30,600 for a family of three. The amount of the subsidy – paid directly to the child care center – depends on the family’s income level.
The parent or guardian who applies must be working or attending school, though there are limited exceptions.
Two primary factors are squeezing the program’s financing: More children are enrolling, and the quality standards for child care centers are increasing, which means the state must pay them more.
The number of children participating climbed 31 percent over a three-year period, to about 21,000.
And the average monthly cost per child is up by over 40 percent since the 2013 fiscal year, to about $521 last year, according to legislative data. That’s a result of the state providing an incentive for child care centers to improve their quality – because they get paid more if they do.
The commitment to higher-quality care is part of the appeal to legislators.
Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, chairman of the influential Senate Finance Committee, said improving the quality of child care centers helps ensure the money is spent effectively, not just dumped down a hole.
Jacobson’s request for an extra $25 million, he said, was “received very favorably.”
“I think, in a bipartisan fashion, the Senate will support a large percentage of her request,” Smith said.
Lawmakers will meet in a 30-day session starting Jan. 16 to craft a budget to send to Gov. Susana Martinez. The state is expected to have nearly $6.3 billion to spend on basic operations next year, or $199 million more than current spending levels.
Child care boosts safety
Analysts for the Legislative Finance Committee have been circumspect in their comments about child care assistance – in contrast to their evaluations of pre-kindergarten services, which they say have shown evidence of boosting academic achievement and contributing to long-lasting gains.
An LFC report in August pointed out that child care assistance costs are climbing but the effect of the improved quality standards has “yet to be fully evaluated.”
There isn’t evidence yet of improved academic outcomes resulting from child care assistance, one analyst told legislators, though the program provides important services for working families.
Jacobson, in turn, has pitched child care assistance as a way to keep children safe.
Her department examined the number of children in the program who were the subject of a substantiated allegation of child maltreatment.
Of those in child care assistance, only about 2.8 percent faced a second substantiated allegation within six months.
For the general population, the rate is 11 percent, she said.
That isn’t, of course, a rigorous, scientific study that controls for other factors. For example, it could be that the kind of families who enroll in child care assistance in the first place already have a certain amount of stability that allows them to respond to allegations and fix them.
But Jacobson said her numbers are a worthwhile “high-level” look at child care assistance and that a comprehensive study might make the program look even better.
At the least, she said, it’s a safe place for children and a consistent source of food and care.
“You’re going to have more eyes on these kids when they’re in child care,” Jacobson said in an interview, “so it’s less likely they’re going to slip through the cracks.”
New Mexico’s children, by some standards, are less safe than kids elsewhere. The rate of child maltreatment, for example, was far worse than the national average in 2015, according to the LFC.
At least nine infants or school-age children, Jacobson said, have died since 2015 as a result of being left alone or with an inappropriate caretaker.
“All of our early childhood services are important,” Jacobson said. “They each play a slightly unique but important role.”
But child care assistance, Jacobson argues, “is where the money is most needed. Without that funding, we won’t be able to maintain the programming we have in place.”