By Amber Wallin
The year was 1940. As the U.S. was entering World War II, women were being recruited to fill factory jobs that men were leaving so they could enlist. “Rosie the Riveter” was born, and Congress passed the Lanham Act, which took care of an issue that was central to getting women into the workforce: providing care for their children. That was the first time – and the last – the federal government made a concerted effort to ensure child care was available for workers.
Times have changed. Women now make up a greater share of the paid workforce than ever before. Yet in many states – New Mexico among them – center-based child care for an infant costs more than tuition at a four-year university. Still, the federal government has failed to ensure that our nation’s workforce – and the businesses that rely on it – has child care that is accessible and affordable. It has been left it up to the states.
This is one area where the Land of Enchantment has taken the lead. Last spring, when New Mexico expanded assistance to make child care free for almost all families, the state made national news. A Washington Post story said New Mexico had “committed a historic and unusual amount of resources to the sector.” Employers and families alike could tell you it was desperately needed.
New Mexico made national news again last fall when voters overwhelmingly supported the constitutional amendment to invest more funding in a continuum of early childhood services. Several national outlets, including CNN, characterized it as the voters making child care a “constitutional guarantee.”
These two changes came on the heels of several other historic investments the Legislature has made in New Mexico’s children, including the creation of the Early Childhood Education and Care Department, the Early Childhood Trust Fund and the Child Tax Credit. New Mexicans rose up en masse – tired of our beloved state ranking at the bottom of the nation in child well-being – and put our youngest children first. Not only will these investments improve our child well-being outcomes in the short term, but they will strengthen our families, communities and economy in the long term.
We’ve been thinking big and acting accordingly on behalf of the littlest New Mexicans. Now is not the time to back down. But the Legislature’s budget is short of what it will take to keep child care within reach for parents of our youngest kiddos, to ensure child care centers stay in business, and to pay the early childhood teachers the wages they need and deserve. An additional $46 million should be shifted into child care funding to help parents afford the enormous costs of great infant and toddler care, reduce turnover in the early ed workforce, and keep the small businesses that provide child care up and running. With 70% of the voters supporting significantly more funding for early childhood services, with 90% of a child’s brain development happening before the age of 5, and with a surplus of more than $3.5 billion, we have no reason to back down and every reason to invest in these most consequential years of our children’s lives.
The state’s fiscal year 2024 budget is now in the hands of the Senate Finance Committee. We urge committee members to fully fund child care. It’s what’s best for New Mexico’s children, families, early ed teachers, businesses and economy. The nation is watching. Let’s continue to show them what transformational progress can be made when you put kids first.
Amber Wallin, MPA, is executive director for New Mexico Voices for Children