Choice between work and child care takes toll on New Mexico moms

January 8, 2024, published in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Written by Margaret O’Hara

When pastry chef Nicole Appels and owner Kate Holland decided to open Baked & Brew in July 2023, they faced a choice: to open or not to open on weekends.

The preferable option was clear to Appels, who relishes the time she spends with her 5-year-old son, Leo. Closing the Cerrillos Road bakery and cafe on the weekends might take a bite out of the business’s potential profits, Appels said, but it also nullifies child care costs and yields personal gains.

Her experience as a single mom, working in the fast-paced restaurant industry, has led her to a clear conclusion: “You’re replaceable at work, but you’re not replaceable at home.”

Though the decision may change in the future, Appels said, Baked & Brew, located near the Baca Railyard District, has so far stuck to its Monday-through-Friday schedule.

It’s a calculation with which many working parents are all too familiar. Thousands of people across New Mexico — particularly women — face difficult choices that pit economic security against family responsibilities.

A new analysis by The Associated Press, using data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse and Current Population surveys, shows how these decisions play out in the state. New Mexico, the data indicate, has one of the lowest employment rates in the nation for women ages 24 to 55 and a significant gap between employment rates for women with at least a college bachelor’s degrees versus those without degrees.

Though the state is unique in the nation in its more abundant availability of subsidized child care for low- and middle-income families, there’s more work to do to expand access to high-quality child care, said Elizabeth Groginsky, Cabinet secretary of the state’s Early Childhood Education and Care Department.

The state’s ultimate goal: universal access to child care.

“That is the vision that we have here,” Groginsky said in an interview. “And so I think we need to continue to think about how we expand access to that free child care, or at least sharing in that cost.”

Difficult decisions

For many mothers, whether to return to work after having children is a fraught question.

It’s personal. It’s financial. It’s dependent on values and income and career aspirations and much more, said Kate Noble, president and CEO of the Santa Fe-based early childhood organization Growing Up New Mexico.

“By and large, it is still disproportionately women who are looking at the trade-off of: Can I earn enough to make it worthwhile to pay for child care?” said Noble, who also serves as a Santa Fe school board member.

Data show grim results of those choices for thousands of families in New Mexico.

The state trails only only West Virginia, South Carolina, Alabama and Kentucky when it comes the unemployment rate for women ages 24 to 55. It also has a large gap in employment rates between mothers with and without college degrees. Between February 2023 and February 2024, census data shows, an average of 59.6% of women with children under 10 and without a bachelor’s degree had a job. The rate for mothers with both young children and a bachelor’s degree was 78.7%, nearly 20 percentage points higher.

Either option — choosing to work or to stay home — can be a hard sell, said Jessica Calarco, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who studies how families navigate decisions related to child care and work.

“We’ve left those women either with no choice but to be the default caregivers for their children … or with the morally fraught choice of maybe you can go to work, but you have to rely on the oftentimes underpaid labor of others to be able to do that,” Calarco said in a news conference.

Whether women can return to work also splinters on racial and ethnic lines, Noble said.

While systemic sexism labels child care as “women’s work,” systemic racism limits access to higher education for women of color, Noble said. Data from the American Association of University Women shows the rate of white women getting an associate or bachelor’s degree by age 29 is nearly twice as high as that of Black women or Latinas.

The result: The ability for white women to return to the workforce often depends on the labor of women of color, Noble said.

“It’s great that women are getting back in the workforce; we just need to do a lot of work to create greater equity and access for women of color,” she said.

Available support

There are a handful of federal and state programs intended to meet child care needs for mothers who choose to return to the workforce.

The federal government funds the Head Start preschool program nationwide, including a smattering individual programs across Northern New Mexico. The program is intended to provide both early learning and wellness opportunities for families with children under 5 and income below the federal poverty threshold, $31,200 annually for a family of four.

New Mexico’s recent efforts to expand child care assistance, meanwhile, can reach beyond families in poverty.

Families making up to 400% of the federal poverty level are eligible for child care assistance in the state. That means households making as much as $80,000, $124,000 or even $210,000 per year may be eligible for state child care assistance depending on family size, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ federal poverty guidelines for 2024.

Funding from the state Early Childhood Education and Care Department allowed Appels to enroll her son in preschool before he started kindergarten.

To Noble, New Mexico’s progress in early childhood education is remarkable. She pointed to a report released last week by the National Institute for Early Education Research that ranked the state 13th in the nation in preschool accessibility.

“It’s always important to recognize how much New Mexico has done,” she said. “Significantly, we have led the nation in creating a more equitable and comprehensive early childhood system.”

Years of advocacy by educators, lawmakers and organizations has in recent years yielded significant growth in state funding for early childhood education. The state established the $300 million Early Childhood Education and Care Fund in 2020 and has since funneled additional state dollars to expand prekindergarten. In 2022, voters approved a state constitutional amendment slated to send over $150 million annually to early childhood programs from New Mexico’s multibillion-dollar Land Grant Permanent Fund.

New Mexico is now ranked 13th in the nation for per-child state spending on early childhood initiatives, far outpacing the U.S. average.

But gaps remain, especially for families whose income slightly exceeds the threshold for child care aid, Groginsky said.

“For families coming in at 401 [percent of the federal poverty level] there’s no assistance, and child care — high-quality child care — the cost of it is out of reach for most families,” she said.

It’s a nationwide phenomenon, Calarco said: The proliferation of families that earn too much to qualify for government-subsidized child care programs but not enough to afford the hefty price of child care — which can look more like a rent or mortgage payment — on their own.

She called it the “missing middle” of American child care.

Potential solutions

New Mexico has a lot of the “crucial pillars” in place in its early childhood system, Noble said. Now it’s a matter of continuing to upgrade that system — in terms of equity and logistics.

“There are a million devils in a million details that we still need to understand,” she said.

One simpler change Noble suggested: All early education documents — from grant applications for child care providers to enrollment forms for families — have to be translated into Spanish.

Another beneficial change would be streamlining regulatory hurdles, Noble said.

For good reason, early childhood care is a highly regulated industry, subject to oversight from the state’s licensing and quality rating systems as well as fire codes and other local requirements. Sometimes, though, those requirements are contradictory and could be improved.

“We’ve got a system, and we’ve made incredible strides,” Noble said. “Now we need to make sure that it’s really working for all the humans in the system — the people who provide the care; the people who access care; and, most of all, the children who are the point of it all.”

And then there is the big solution: Continuing to expand the state’s child care assistance program so that it meets the needs of families across the state.

New Mexico is making some progress in expanding access: The industry grew by 660 preschool slots in the 2022-23 school year, and Groginsky said she expects to see another 1,300 children enrolled in 2024-25.

“The goal of the governor is universal access to quality early care and education,” she said.

While there’s no set definition for what that universality might look like, it will require its own complex concoction of considerations, from expanding facility infrastructure to developing the early childhood workforce to ensuring the cost of care is within reach of working families.

“You need all those pieces,” Groginsky said. “You need the places [and] the wonderfully well-educated and compensated people serving those children, and then you need those places to be of the highest quality.”