Albuquerque, New Mexico
As a mother of three, Alicia Fout went to college and worked 30 hours a week, but still often struggled to pay for childcare.
The high price forced them to prioritize paying their monthly bills, which meant frequent utility shutdown notifications — and some extremely difficult decisions.
“I learned what bills I could forego every other month to keep up with my kids’ financial needs,” Fout told CNN.
That was before New Mexico became the first state to offer free child care to most of its residents in May. Now, following a referendum in November, it’s also the first state to enshrine childcare funding in its constitution, effectively making service a universal right — and perhaps providing a model for how other states offer their youngest residents and working parents could serve.
The average cost of childcare for families nationwide in 2021 exceeded inflation, according to analysis by Child Care Aware of America. A low-income family should only have to spend 7% of their income on childcare, according to a federal guideline based on an average of census data. But the nationwide average cost of childcare — $10,600 a year — is about 10% of the median annual income of a married family and 35% of the income of a single parent, the analysis found.
In Fout’s case, childcare costs consumed 30% of her monthly income.
“I’ve had moments where I’ve thought about whether it’s even worth working and pursuing my career to meet my childcare needs,” said Fout, who works in retail and has a business and privilege degree.
The impact of the financial strain passed on to Fout’s 8-year-old son, who she said remembers the struggle of his mother, who went to panels and charities for help paying bills. He worried and was more focused on “if we had enough than on school,” she recalls.
It was a burden Fout didn’t want to put on him.
She found a temporary solution in May in the state pilot program, which uses pandemic aid to enable families with income requirements of up to one year to have free childcare. By not paying the federal co-payment, Fout saves $370 a month in childcare costs — a sum that could mean real relief when it comes due.
The program, crafted by a willing governor, state legislators and determined child advocates, effectively makes childcare free for families who earn up to 400% of the state poverty line, or about $111,000 for a family of four. The median household income in the state is $51,243.
At its core, the program aims to provide a safe environment for children during a period of critical growth and brain development. In addition, by saving money on childcare, caregivers can invest more in their families, from providing healthy food to owning a home, a key official said.
The pilot program, officials said, is serving as a model to help those most in need. However, the aid funds are due to expire next June.
Then, last month, a staggering 70% of New Mexico voters made history by approving a constitutional amendment to fund early childhood programs, including childcare, using a portion of the state’s oil and gas bonanza.
Congress has yet to approve the change and is on track to hopefully do so by the end of this session, a spokesman for Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico told CNN.
There has been a strong will in New Mexico to improve its part of the largely dysfunctional US child-care system, largely because it is one of the poorest states and consistently ranks among the worst for child welfare, state officials and child advocates say.
Child advocates started the movement about 12 years ago to enshrine a permanent source of funding for child care in the state constitution. It was a long-term strategy for a coalition of grassroots nonprofit groups, including New Mexico Voices For Children.
That organization first brainstormed in 2010 to use money from oil and gas exploration revenues to fund childcare and early education, said Amber Wallin, its chief executive.
New Mexico is the country’s second-largest oil and gas producing state, with estimated direct and indirect revenues from that production for fiscal 2022 of $5.2 billion, the state Department of Treasury and Administration told CNN.
“It’s been years of commentary, blogs and letters to the editor, TV and radio interviews to raise public awareness,” Wallin told CNN. “It was working with policymakers to educate and get them to understand the importance of early childhood and then when it mattered, it was really hundreds of thousands of voter contacts.”
It all paid off when voters on Nov. 8 approved the ballot measure to guarantee this funding source in the state constitution so that early childhood services and programs like child care would be accessible to most New Mexico families.
It’s about “putting kids at the top of budgets,” Wallin said. “All states have the power to do this, but for too long children have not been a priority in political budgets. I think New Mexico really does offer a roadmap on how to achieve that.”
Indeed, New Mexico’s newly enshrined constitutional guarantee, along with other efforts, could be the blueprint for addressing the statewide struggle over childcare funding and access, state officials and attorneys here said.
Under Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, New Mexico introduced a minimum wage for childcare workers: entry-level teachers now make $15 an hour, and more experienced head teachers make $20 an hour. The salary increases aim to improve employee retention; Before the pay rises, workers at a fast-food restaurant could earn a higher wage than those in childcare, child advocates told CNN.
New Mexico also created the first state agency and cabinet posts focused on early childhood education and care. Also, “We were the first state to base our cost of what we reimburse childcare providers for childcare on the actual cost of care, and we were the first state to make childcare free for most families,” said Elizabeth Groginsky First Secretary of State for Early Childhood Education.
New Mexico is already seeing a measurable impact from state child care policies, she told CNN.
“We hear every day from families about the incredible changes that have been made in their lives, whether they can now invest in their children’s futures, … invest in quality, nutritious food for my family, or buy a home, or invest in my home,” he said Groginsky, noting that these options mean financial stability.
“What New Mexico has done means it’s possible in many states,” she said.
For Fout’s family, New Mexico’s pioneering approach to childcare has already helped. Perhaps most importantly, her 8-year-old son no longer worries about money, his mother said.
And, she said, he’s more focused — and excelling — at school.