New Mexico Gonna Do Free Child Care, Just Like A Civilized Place!
Photo: New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Facebook

If you want a vision of a possible future, maybe stop imagining George Orwell's "boot stamping on a human face, forever," and instead imagine a preschool class full of squirmy youngsters, learning and playing and generally being wonderful and sometimes a pain in the ass, as small children can also be.

What can I say? I love the pessimistic old English socialist who rightly feared the totalitarian impulse, but sometimes I end up feeling far more hopeful, like when I read about New Mexico's new initiative to completely cover childcare costs for most residents of the state for a year (free link to Washington Post). I can be a sap that way. I'm also the guy who tears up when Tom Joad tells his mother he'll be there in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready.

Starting May 1 and running through June 2023, the state will cover child care for families earning up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level, which ought to cover most New Mexico families. It's easily the broadest state child care benefit in the USA, and the first state benefit to cover such a wide range of incomes. It'll be available to a family of four making up to $110,000 annually, as the Washington Post 'splains:

The state recently expanded a federal child-care subsidy to middle-class families. On Thursday, Lujan Grisham said it would eliminate co-pays for them, too. Officials estimate both changes will make child care free for a total of 30,000 families.

This is pretty freaking wonderful; Lujan Grisham announced the expanded benefit yesterday on her website and at a child care center in Albuquerque, and the video is worth skimming through, if only for the occasional shots of a tiny little girl doing her level best to show interest in all these grownups talking about policy.

With the workforce still recovering from pandemic chaos — not that life for working families was a picnic beforehand! — the expanded childcare benefits will give a lot of workers the option of going back to work, or even starting small businesses themselves because they'll have more flexibility. This isn't just good news for families; it'll also be a boost for businesses that have had a hard time filling positions in the unsettled pandemic economy.

Mario Cardona, the chief of policy and practice for Child Care Aware of America, a nonprofit that advocates for affordable child care, called the announcement “the type of thing that we should be seeing across the country.”

Though other states, including Georgia, Virginia and Kansas, have expanded eligibility and made child care more affordable during the pandemic, none have gone as far as New Mexico, which has committed a historic and unusual amount of resources to the sector, Cardona said. Other states have largely relied on federal relief from the Cares Act and the American Rescue Plan to pay for child-care improvements, but the last of those dollars expires in 2024 and lawmakers may be hesitant, Cardona said, to roll out new programs using temporary money.

But with the federal bennies starting to run out in a couple years, how on earth will New Mexico pay for all this outrageous socialism? Easy peasy: It's not just using the federal pandemic funds. This has been a priority for the state for a while now:

New Mexico, by contrast, has created permanent pots of money. In early 2020, the state spent $300 million to create its Early Childhood Education and Care Fund. The endowment, which draws on taxes from oil and natural gas production, is projected to be worth $4.3 billion by 2025.

That endowment is especially important to Lujan Grisham's next goal, which is to make the expanded child care benefit permanent, by using some $127 million a year from another source, New Mexico's Land Grant Permanent Fund — but to allow the state to tap those funds, voters will need to pass an initiative in the November election.

On top of the expanded benefits for a year, Lujan Grisham also announced the state would use $10 million in discretionary funds from the American Rescue Plan to offer grants to new or expanded daycare centers, to make sure there's enough quality child care to meet the increased demand.

In addition, the state will beef up the child care workforce with a new stipend program that will pay up to $2000 per semester for early childhood professionals enrolled in state universities or community colleges; that's on top of an existing scholarship program to get more people enrolled in the field.

The new benefits will start helping a lot of working and middle-class families right away, as the Post explains:

Melissa Martinez, a single mother of a 3-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter, said the news came as a great relief after the pandemic. Martinez said she has experienced tremendous financial setbacks over the last two years and has found herself unable to afford child care at times. The co-pay waiver will save her $120 a month.

“Unfortunately, $120 does go really far in a single-income household,” Martinez said. “That goes to pretty much all of our necessities, basic necessities like shampoo. You would be surprised how many bottles of soap I’ve been through because my little guys love to play in the bath.”

Why yes, when you're raising kiddos and you don't have a great big pile of birthday stock holdings from your rich dad, $120 extra a month can mean a hell of a lot. Martinez, who volunteers with a nonprofit that advocates for early childhood education and is therefore probably awfully biased in favor of children, told the Post that

she has met dozens of low-income families who have long been afraid to earn more money because they worried they would no longer qualify for the federal child-care subsidies states give low-income parents. By expanding the eligibility for the program, Martinez said she and other parents will feel empowered to look for better paying jobs.

This is a big heckin' deal, and it's been a central goal for Lujan Grisham, who campaigned on improving New Mexico's previously abysmal rankings for children's well-being. In addition to ramping up opportunities for child care, New Mexico this year also became one of the very few states to start providing a state child tax credit, too.

We could do this as a nation. It was in the Build Back Better bill, which would have provided child care and expanded the child tax credit that measurably reduced child poverty. The idea strikes me as far preferable to an agenda of attacking gay kids, censoring school books, and just generally making life crappier for America's children. But as I say, I'll take optimism where I find it. We could be so much better. Maybe we're all just part of one big soul, and we could act like it.

[WaPo (free link) / Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.


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