I am writing today to announce the closure of the New Mexico Independent. After three and a half years of operation in New Mexico, the board of the American Independent News Network, has decided to shift publication of its news…
Budget woes force cuts to childcare for needy families
At a time when more New Mexicans are struggling financially the state has restricted access to a program that helps low-income parents find and keep jobs — and, some people say, keeps them off the welfare rolls.
Since January more than 1,000 low-income New Mexican families with 1,600 children have been added to a waiting list for a government-funded childcare subsidy.
Unemployed parents often need childcare so they can go to job interviews; having childcare allows them to keep working. But without the subsidy, childcare can be too expensive for many low-income parents.
“It’s definitely is a huge concern,” said Romaine Serna of the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department, which administers the state’s child care program. “It will definitely impact a citizen’s ability to become employed or to attend school.”
Some parents are hanging by a thread—and childcare is that thread
In addition to complicating the job hunt, the restricted access to the state program also means fewer children will go into childcare, potentially putting more kids at risk for neglect or abuse, Serna said. Childcare centers have been eyes and ears for the department’s protective services system for years, pointing out signs of neglect or abuse to the state agency.
“Think of the most recent horrific examples of abuse, and they involve the unwilling babysitter – the boyfriend or an unwilling mother,” Serna said.
“There are parents who are doing fine. Then there are the marginal parents who are hanging on by a thread and childcare is that thread.”
Childcare subsidy was part of welfare reform
The childcare subsidy for low-income Americans was part of the reform of the nation’s welfare system in the 1990s. The thinking went if you helped a parent by making childcare affordable they could go out and look for a job and then keep it rather than having to stay at home and get government aid.
But New Mexico is one of several states across the country that is cutting back on childcare subsidies as they deal with state budget crises. Like New Mexico, some states have created waiting lists. Others have made deeper cuts.
The trend is troubling to advocates for children.
“Of all the support services we should be providing for struggling families in times like these child care assistance is the most important,” said Bill Jordan, policy director for the New Mexico Voices for Children. “You can’t survive at that level and put out $400 or $500 a month for child care.”
For that reason, some wonder if putting parents on a waiting list for the childcare subsidy will end up adding to the government’s financial burden. Already there are signs that other programs serving low-income New Mexicans—the government’s low-income health insurance program known as Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program—are continuing to swell thanks to the bad economy and as unemployment continues to rise. Likewise, if some families aren’t able to find jobs, they might slip financially and become eligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the federal program that replaced what used to be called welfare.
New state budget cuts program by $1.3 million
New Mexico still allows the poorest of the poor — families earning up to 100 percent of federal poverty ($14,583 for a two-person family or $22,056 for a family of four) — to receive the childcare subsidy.
But citing budget shortfalls late last year, the state started the waiting list in January for families that earn just over 100 percent of federal poverty threshold. Prior to the waiting list the childcare subsidy went to New Mexico families earning up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level ($29,166 for a family of two and $44,103 for a family of four). As a result, families earning between 100 percent and 200 percent of federal poverty now are relegated to the waiting list.
And the waiting list may get larger.
‘Given the fiscal conditions the state had, we had to reduce funding’
The New Mexico state budget that takes effect July 1 spends $1.3 million less on childcare assistance than this year.
In addition, $13.6 million in federal stimulus dollars that helped soften the cash-shortage problem in New Mexico’s childcare assistance program will end at the end of September. That means the state faces a stark choice: replace that money at a time of economic distress or make deeper cuts.
Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe, and chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee (LFC), said there weren’t many good options available when state lawmakers were cobbling together the state budget.
“Given the fiscal conditions the state had, we had to reduce funding,” he said Monday.
Jordan of New Mexico Voices for Children didn’t buy the notion that lawmakers had few options.
“We’re in this situation because lawmakers decided it was more important to protect the tax cuts we gave to the richest New Mexicans than to provide child care for our youngest children,” he said.
Jordan was referring to the debate leading up to and during this year’s regular and special sessions over whether to raise the income tax on the states’ wealthiest residents.
But things could have been worse for childcare assistance, Varela said. Lawmakers shifted $600,000 around so that what had been a $1.9 million cut to childcare assistance became in actuality a $1.3 million reduction (see page 85, Appendix T).
He added that state agencies now have greater flexibility to shift money saved in one area of their budgets to priority areas.
“We only ask that they go before the LFC to tell us,” he said.