by Bill Jordan
June 3, 2013

Next to housing, child care is the biggest expense for young couples with kids. Without someone to care for their kids, they can’t work. And yet, policymakers continue to underfund child care assistance programs and the media ignores it.

When UNM announces it might increase tuition by 14 percent next year it makes headlines in the Albuquerque Journal. But to my knowledge, they’ve never reported the fact that high-quality child care for a toddler costs considerably more than the average tuition and fees at our state universities. That’s right—it costs more to send your kid to child care than to UNM. And yet there are no Pell grants, no student loans, no lottery scholarships, and 3 year-olds can’t get on the work-study program. The young parents have to pay the bill—in advance.

According to a recent market survey, child care costs about $6,000 to $7,000 a year. That is a big chunk of parents’ take-home pay. The good news is that New Mexico has a sliding-fee child care assistance program that helps working parents afford to keep their child in a safe and nurturing environment while they work. The bad news is that the state budget crisis in recent years has meant that thousands of families are being turned away or are on the waiting list, and there is little hope they will be served this year.

With all the financial help that college students and their parents get, it might surprise you to know that parents making $15,000 a year make too much money to get any help with sliding-fee child care assistance. That program used to provide assistance to those living at 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level but because of state budget priorities, now only those parents making about 110 percent or less can get any help, and even then huge co-pays are required.

So parents are faced with the choice of spending more than a third of their wages on child care or, perhaps worse, finding affordable unregistered care—which may or may not be offered in a safe environment.

Child care assistance has been lauded by politicians and parents alike as the most effective way to make work pay. New Mexico’s families deserve the opportunity to work with the sense of security knowing their children are not only in a safe place, but spending their day in a place that fosters their intellectual and emotional development. We’re grateful that lawmakers approved an increase in child care assistance funding in next year’s budget, but it’s not nearly enough to serve even all the children on the waiting list. We all need to demand that our lawmakers do at least as much for our youngest kids as they do for our college students.

Bill Jordan is NM Voices’ Senior Policy Advisor/Governmental Relations.