- Associated Press - Monday, June 5, 2017

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - The number of low-income families tapping into government-funded child care assistance is steadily increasing in New Mexico, but state officials say two-thirds of those who are eligible have yet to enroll.

Children, Youth and Families Secretary Monique Jacobson says her agency is working to raise awareness about the program as elected leaders look for more ways to tackle generational poverty issues.

The state has among the nation’s highest rates when it comes to children and working families living in poverty, and agency officials and advocates see the program as a tool to help parents get ahead while keeping children out of potentially harmful situations.

“Oftentimes when we see abuse or neglect occurring, it is either at the hands of an inappropriate caretaker or because Mom or Dad have so many stressors in their lives,” Jacobson said in a recent interview. “Many of these could be alleviated if they had a safe place to leave their children while they are going to school or working.”

As of April, state data show that more than 19,300 children were enrolled in the child care assistance program. While the numbers fluctuate from month to month, officials say it is a significant increase over the past two years.

A recent change allowing children to stay eligible for 12 consecutive months has boosted enrollment by about 6 percent, according to legislative analysts.

The percentage of children enrolled in what the state classifies as high-quality child care also has increased to about 70 percent, up from 57 percent at the end of 2014.

Aside from simple access to care, providing quality child care can improve the chance of success once children enter school, Jacobson said.

“This is huge. We think this can address both safety issues as well as achievement gap issues,” she said.

The program is financed through state funds and federal block grants, making for New Mexico’s largest expenditure when it comes to early childhood services. The budget for the fiscal year ending this month totals nearly $112 million, a more than 25 percent increase in six years.

Still, some advocates are worried about future funding, pointing to the state’s persistent budget problems and federal negotiations that could lead to less money for grant programs that support social services.

Amber Wallin of the group New Mexico Voices for Children said child care assistance allows parents to go to work and earn more for their families while putting children in quality centers where meals are available and they can be flagged for everything from health issues to special education needs.

“We’re still not investing as much as we should in the program given what we know about its huge benefits and given what we know about the huge need in New Mexico,” Wallin said.

State money for the upcoming fiscal year will remain stable, but Wallin and others are planning to reignite a much-debated call to tap one of New Mexico’s permanent investment funds to provide more money for such programs.

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