New Mexicans share a belief that all of us – no matter where we live, how we look, or what we believe – deserve access to the same opportunities that help us achieve our unique potential. These opportunities – receiving a quality education, and having access to affordable health care, jobs that pay family-sustaining wages, and safe and affordable housing – are often referred to as social determinants of health and they impact everything from the conditions surrounding our births to the length of our lives.
The COVID-19 pandemic made it apparent that these opportunities are not universally available and their lack has led to lower-quality social determinants of health for some communities. Clearly, communities of color and those earning low incomes were hardest hit by the pandemic as well as the economic aftermath. But another aspect that hasn’t gotten as much notice is how the pandemic and recession have hurt women more than men, with women of color being hurt the most.
This should not be surprising, since women still earn lower incomes than do men in the same professions, and that the gap is even greater for women of color. But the COVID recession went way beyond wage differences. In New Mexico, women comprise 47% of the workforce and 64% of the frontline workers. But, across the nation, women’s rate of participation in the workforce is the lowest it has been since 1988. In September 2021, men gained 220,000 jobs but women lost 26,000 jobs.
Being a mother has increased this inequity. More mothers than fathers have lost wages, decreased their work hours, and exited the labor force entirely. Mothers with young children have reduced their work hours four to five times more than fathers have.
That women of color have been hurt the most by the recession should be of great concern in a state where 75% of our kids are children of color. If we want them to succeed, we need to ensure that all of our children and their mothers have access to the same opportunities.
Fortunately, policymakers pushed through some big wins for families during the 2021 legislative session, in part by increasing and expanding two tax credits for those earning low incomes. The federal increase in the Child Tax Credit was another life line for many families. And the state’s expansion of child care assistance for working parents helped rebuild infrastructure that is as critical to our economy as to our parents. But there is more to be done.
In the upcoming legislative session, New Mexico Voices for Children will be asking lawmakers to put families with children first in policymaking. High on the list of policies that will help ensure a just recovery and equitable opportunities for all families are enacting a state-level CTC, with families facing the biggest economic challenges seeing the biggest benefits. We will also be pushing for the state to make the changes in child care assistance permanent. Other policies to improve family economic security include providing cash assistance to families left out of federal relief and giving one-time economic assistance to frontline essential workers. Both of these groups will spend that relief quickly and locally, hastening our state’s economic recovery as well. Ending predatory lending, which can trap families in an endless cycle of debt, would also ensure families have better opportunities to thrive.
Equality of opportunity is not something that just happens. It is a product of policies and programs that work together to create a foundation so all of New Mexico’s kids, families, and communities have an equal chance to strive for success. Listening to women, families, and communities of color, and enacting bold, systemic policy change that prioritizes those who have too long been left behind – that’s how we build back better and cement a just future for all.
Amber Wallin, MPA, is the executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, which works to improve the status, well-being and racial/ethnic equity of New Mexico’s children, families, and communities in the areas of health, education, and economic security by promoting public policies through credible research and effective advocacy. The views in this column are the author’s alone and do not reflect the views or opinions of New Mexico In Depth.