Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima has been hearing complaints and concerns from businesses throughout the process to increase his city’s minimum wage from the state minimum of $7.50 in 2014 to $10.10 an hour in 2019. There was a particular howl recently from the business community when a provision to index the minimum wage to inflation was scheduled to begin Jan. 1, 2018, something business operators and even the local school district was not prepared for because of an error in the ordinance’s drafting. The city council has since fixed the oversight. But child-care providers in particular have been bending Miyagishima’s ear because of fear over the effects on their payrolls and on parents who are receiving child-care subsidies.
Amber Wallin, Kids Count director for New Mexico Voices for Children, flashed up a photo on a screen during her presentation to childhood advocates and elected leaders in Las Cruces for the first Southern New Mexico Kids Count conference on Thursday. Anyone of a certain age would recognize the black and white photo of a motley bunch of kids in baseball uniforms: The Bad News Bears. Wallin said people in New Mexico were tired of being those Bears, tired of hearing the same old stats: 49th in child well-being, 50th in education, 49th in community and family. Some were tuning out, becoming numb, or throwing up their hands because it didn’t seem like there was anything they could do to change the situation. What is her answer to that? “Policy matters,” she said.
Jockeying for what little new money is expected for the coming fiscal year has already started. Children, Youth and Families Secretary Monique Jacobson is seeking $26 million more for her department, mostly to cover the growing cost of subsidized child care in New Mexico. She told members of the Legislative Finance Committee on Wednesday that the cost per child for day care and early education has risen from about $312 per month in 2012 to $535 in 2018. That reflects increases in reimbursements aimed at increasing the quality of programs and improving worker pay and education. While looking at early childhood education efforts in Dona Ana County I waded pretty deeply into the weeds on access to high quality childcare in the state.
Charlie Garcia is a bubbly 4-year-old with soft brown curls. Sitting down for a small group activity on a late-August afternoon at Alpha School in Las Cruces, she chatters with her teachers and friends. Sitting quietly nearby is Evelynn Aguirre McClure. Assistant teacher Brittany Polanco encourages the two girls and their classmate to build a house and fill it with drawings of their families. Using popsicle sticks, Polanco shows them how to make the outlines, flip the sticks over, glue them and then flip them back over so they stick to the paper.
The Affordable Care Act and its Medicaid expansion will live on following the death Sept. 27 of congressional Republicans’ last-ditch effort to repeal and replace Obamacare, but uncertainty remains for thousands of families in New Mexico whose children are covered through the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Congress allowed funding for the program to expire over the weekend. CHIP, which began under the Clinton administration, covers children from lower- and middle-income families who make too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to buy private insurance. CHIP covers 9 million kids in the U.S.
According to estimates from the state Human Services Department, more than 11,300 children in New Mexico are covered under CHIP, and if Congress does not appropriate money for the program the state would have to come up with $31.2 million to keep the program going, said Abuko Estrada, a staff attorney for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty who works on health access issues.
A gaping revenue shortfall and lack of reserves have New Mexico’s legislators worried about short-circuiting the progress of large investments made in early childhood and safety net programs in recent years. A steep decline in the price of oil has contracted an industry on which New Mexico relies heavily, leading to broad layoffs, sales of oilfield equipment, foreclosures and bankruptcies. That, in turn, has gutted the cash from tax revenues state leaders counted on to pay for state operations. State leaders emptied out the state’s reserve fund to balance last year’s budget. Now they must close this year’s shortfall — projected at $69 million — without a pot of money that has cushioned economic pain in previous economic downturns.
If I learned one thing from the young people I’ve met while reporting this project, it’s that my daughter needs me to listen without judgment, forsaking the temptation to give advice or prattle on about my own childhood experiences.