Note: this is the fifth installment in our series on policies passed during the 2019 legislative session that will improve equity in New Mexico. You can read the introduction, which gives more information on what we mean by ‘equity’ and what the disparities are, and link to previous blogs in this series here.

by Bill Jordan
July 23, 2019

All kids deserve the opportunity to thrive and succeed, but unfortunately we know that not all kids in New Mexico have the resources they need to reach their full potential, and many struggle as a result. New Mexico is again ranked last in the nation in child well-being. When our children aren’t faring well, it means our families aren’t doing well. It’s not at all surprising that, along with child well-being, New Mexico also ranks poorly on the share of families who remain poor despite hard work. Families of color and families headed by women tend to face the most barriers to economic stability.

But several bills were passed during the 2019 legislative session that should improve family economic security. Because these bills were targeted to help families earning low and moderate incomes – and because workers of color and women are disproportionately represented in those wage groups – the bills should also improve equity by helping to ensure that we all have access to the opportunities that help us reach our potential.

First, we finally got an increase in the state minimum wage, which has not been raised – meaning it’s been losing purchasing power – since 2009. It will rise in stages from the current $7.50 per hour to $12.00 per hour by 2023. That alone will put millions of dollars into the pockets of working families. More than half (54 percent) of our state’s workers who will see a wage increase are women and nearly three-quarters (70 percent) are people of color. Legislators also passed a bill requiring that domestic workers be paid no less than the minimum wage. Many of these workers – the vast majority of whom are women and people of color – were being paid sub-minimum wages, a practice that was legal until this year.

While higher incomes are critical, workers earning low-wages need other support systems, since their jobs rarely include benefits like health insurance. Our state’s health care system has been struggling with insufficient funding, but lawmakers approved a tax that the hospitals actually requested. Hospitals wanted this tax because when the state adequately funds Medicaid, it receives millions more in matching federal dollars. Ultimately that funding will go back to hospitals to provide care for qualifying New Mexicans.

Also on the health front, the Legislature also approved funding for a study to determine the feasibility of enacting a Medicaid buy-in plan. If feasible, it would allow people earning too much money to qualify for Medicaid to buy into the plan. This could ultimately save the state – and its residents – lots of money, since Medicaid is far more efficient and cost-effective than most private insurance plans.

Another big change in health care delivery was the passage of legislation that creates a mid-level dental care provider. This is a big win for New Mexicans who are low-income or live in rural areas. The law allows dental therapists to be licensed to provide basic care. Much like physician’s assistants working with doctors, dental therapists will work under the supervision of a dentist. This will not only expand access to dental coverage to many more New Mexicans, it will also lower costs.

Another important work support is child care assistance. Unfortunately, this issue did not get the attention it so desperately needs. While it did receive a slight increase in funding, fixing the program’s most egregious flaw – the “cliff effect” – was never considered. As any working parent knows, child care is very expensive. In fact, high-quality child care costs more than tuition at UNM. The state’s child care assistance program provides much-needed help for the state’s working or student parents, but the eligibility levels are set far too low, and often, when parents no longer qualify, they hit a financial cliff. This happens when a parent gets a raise in pay that is enough to disqualify them for child care assistance but is nowhere near enough money to cover the cost of the lost benefit. Too often parents must turn down raises or promotions so they don’t lose their child care assistance. Work support programs should help parents work their way into a better financial situation, but the cliff effect keeps parents down.

Several other changes were made that will improve the financial security of our families and bring us closer to racial, ethnic, and gender equity. We’ll just mention them here, as we’ve already covered them in other blogs in this series. One of the most important changes was an increase in the Working Families Tax Credit. That legislation, as well as the new child tax deduction and a child tax credit (which did not pass), is covered in our blog on tax policy. Other important changes were made to need-based college financial aid, which you can read more about in our blog on college affordability. We also saw some important changes to criminal and juvenile justice laws, which you can see in this blog.

Clearly there is more work to do. Our public education system needs to make its curriculum more relevant to the cultural heritage and linguistic needs of our students, most of whom are kids of color. We still need paid sick and family leave policies. Affordable housing, home visiting, pre-K, and many other services need additional resources. And our tax system still falls hardest on low- and middle-income families (who are more likely to be people of color) than the very wealthy. While this session was a good start, we urge you to encourage your elected officials to continue to build opportunities for all New Mexicans, regardless of where they were born, how much money their families make, or the color of their skin.

Bill Jordan, MA, is Policy Advisor and Government Relations Officer for NM Voices.