Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE — The recent announcement that New Mexico will raise its income eligibility threshold for child care assistance to the nation’s highest level has turned heads around the country.
An estimated 20,000 additional New Mexico children could qualify for child care assistance under the sweeping eligibility expansion, which was announced last week by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and other top state officials.
That would nearly double the program’s current enrollment of about 22,000 children and their families.
The initiative has drawn praise from President Joe Biden’s administration, with U.S. Administration for Children and Families Secretary JooYeun Chang calling it a model for other states.
“New Mexico’s announcement demonstrates the progress that we can make for children, families and the economy when we invest in the child care sector,” Chang said in a statement. “We must ensure that these investments are sustainable so that we can realize the benefits of a strong early childhood system.”
However, the expansion has already reignited a debate over the role of government in early childhood and whether such assistance programs should be temporary or permanent.
“This is a large expansion and a new cost to the state,” warned Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, founder and former employee of a Sierra County early childhood center.
There are also logistical questions about just how the child care assistance expansion will work, given that there are fewer licensed child care centers around New Mexico than at the start of the pandemic and limited capacity in many rural parts of the state.
Early Childhood Education and Care Secretary Elizabeth Groginsky has said the eligibility expansion, along with a change in how the state calculates subsidy rates for licensed providers, could help address chronically high poverty rates in New Mexico.
Currently, nearly 29% of children under age 5 live in families that are below the federal poverty rate — currently $26,500 for a family of four.
“We know in many parts of our state … building more child care and expanding child care is a top priority,” Groginsky said during a legislative hearing last week.
She also said the agency has been receiving about 80 applications per day since the eligibility expansion was announced.