The New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department has withdrawn a proposal to limit eligibility for child care assistance to parents earning 160 percent or less of the federal poverty level — down from 200 percent enacted in May, following the settlement of a class-action lawsuit against the agency’s previous leader.
The announcement late Wednesday came days ahead of a public hearing scheduled to gather input on several proposed changes to the benefit program. Monday’s hearing has been postponed.
Many of the rule changes for the program were aimed at complying with a judge’s order in the settlement agreement. The state District Court case against Monique Jacobson, who headed the child welfare department under former Gov. Susana Martinez, centered on plaintiffs’ allegations they were wrongly denied assistance to help pay for day care and preschool costs.
The suit also accused the Martinez administration of rolling back eligibility requirements to 150 percent of the federal poverty level from 200 percent — $38,625 a year for a family of four, versus $51,500 — without a public process.
But the lower income cap for initial acceptance into the child care program, proposed less than a month after the settlement was announced, drew criticism from plaintiffs and the general public.
A spokesman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said at the time the decision was due to a lack of funding allocated for the aid program.
The Governor’s Office and CYFD officials had said they hoped to restore the higher family income cap of 200 percent of the federal poverty level by 2020.
In a news release Wednesday, CYFD announced the state is opting instead to find ways to maintain the wider eligibility ordered in the class-action settlement.
CYFD Secretary Brian Blalock said in the statement, “We know that statistically, each family with access to high-quality child care is more likely to come out of poverty over time. Those parents and caretakers are also more able to work and attend school.”
Blalock called child care aid one of the most important programs the agency administers.
Last week, Lujan Grisham told a crowd in Albuquerque at the annual New Mexico Kids Count conference on child well-being that poverty in New Mexico must be dealt a death blow.
In the statement issued Wednesday, she said, “Universal child care assistance in New Mexico is my unconditional goal. So we will concern ourselves with coverage and access first and foremost.
“To settle for anything less would be a disservice to the families and children of this state,” the governor added.
According to the news release, CYFD is working with community organizations, legislators, child care providers and preschool teachers to increase participation in the benefit program.
Sovereign Hager, legal director for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which represented some of the plaintiffs in the class-action suit, lauded the decision to maintain the 200 percent income cap.
According to a study by the national nonprofit Center on Law and Social Policy, Hager said, nearly 19,700 kids in New Mexico would have lost access to day care and preschool benefits if the state had lowered the cap to 160 percent.
“I think this administration has indicated that they want to be strong on child hunger and take poverty head on,” she said in an interview late Wednesday. “This is a program that really could be improved to provide new opportunity for families that would prevent hunger and prevent poverty.”