Youth advocates at a New Mexico Voices for Children virtual conference expressed concern Thursday over financial gaps widened by the pandemic, calling for more investment in children from policymakers.
“Equality of opportunity is not something that just happens,” said the organization’s deputy director, Amber Wallin. “Moving forward, we have to pass policy that supports families, prioritizes children and … improves opportunities for women and communities of color in our state.”
Wallin, who will step into the director position at Voices for Children in December when James Jimenez retires, called for Medicaid expansions for families with newborns and for approval of tapping into the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund for early childhood initiatives.
New Mexicans will vote in November 2022 on whether to amend the state constitution to authorize apportioning $180 million annually from the permanent fund.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham voiced support for both endeavors in a video presented at the conference.
“It is important to help families get by during a particularly difficult time,” she said. “But that can’t be our sole focus, and it isn’t.”
During a panel discussion at the conference, early childhood coalition Ngage New Mexico’s director, Lori Martinez, pushed for more support for child care workers from the governor’s administration and lawmakers.
“Our economy exists on the backs of our child care providers’ labor, often women,” she said. “And in New Mexico that definitely means women of color.”
New Mexico has lost 8,000 child care slots through the pandemic, as many at-home child care providers shuttered last year, Martinez said. Higher wages and better health benefits may help fill the gaps, she added.
“There are some very basic things these women are asking for,” Martinez said. “New Mexico is flush with money right now. We have absolutely no excuse not to do it.”
Looking to the 2022 legislative session, Wallin drew attention to the state’s rankings in the most recent Kids Count report, which used pre-pandemic data to rank New Mexico 49th in the nation for overall child well-being and 50th in education.
“Unfortunately that story that the data tells has not always been a great one for our state,” she said. “We haven’t always done a very good job at ensuring really adequate opportunities for all of our kids to thrive and to succeed.”
While data that reflects the state of child well-being through the pandemic is not yet available through Kids Count, Wallin pointed to data from September that showed high percentages of families are struggling with food and housing insecurity, and that 38 percent of New Mexico’s parents had difficulty affording basic household necessities that month.
Forty percent of parents with children younger than 5 surveyed by New Mexico Voices for Children also reported disruptions to their child care arrangements.
Employment rates among workers in New Mexico earning $27,000 a year or less dropped by 12.7 percent between January 2020 and June 2021, while rates among those earning $60,000 or more grew, according to data compiled by New Mexico Voices for Children.
Wallin said Native Americans in New Mexico experienced higher rates of COVID-19 cases through that period, while Hispanic workers and women, who are more likely to be front-line workers, saw notable employment declines.