How New Mexico Child Care Workers Got the State to Invest in Their Industry
Merline Gallegos’ child care center has been on the verge of closing many times. She’s long struggled to pay her workers the wages she believes they deserve, and when the pandemic hit, things only got worse.
“We were going to close or we needed to find some help,” Gallegos, 36, of Las Cruces, New Mexico, said in an interview conducted in Spanish. Her workers were losing hope; Gallegos’ family struggled to make ends meet.
Around the same time, Gallegos was invited to a meeting about a state fund filled with so much money that it could turn around the hardships of not just her own center, but of the entire state’s child care system. It’s your money in that fund, the organizers told the group. They just needed to get New Mexico voters on board.
The first thing Gallegos noticed was that the meeting was held in Spanish and the people in the room were almost all Latinas, she said. Like Gallegos, more than half of New Mexico’s early education workers are Latina.
“The inclusion of our community was interesting,” she said. “I wanted to be part of the change.”
Gallegos and thousands of child care workers across the state are now celebrating the overwhelming success of a constitutional amendment that will push lawmakers to tap into that state fund, seeded by profits from the state’s oil and gas, and pour millions of dollars directly into its early childhood education system.
As the nation grapples with a persistent child care crisis, other states are looking to New Mexico as a model of what is possible. The people behind the successful effort to rally statewide support for better funding of the state’s system say it took a decade of advocacy by child care workers steeped in the hard reality of low wages and underfunded classrooms, and a campaign that energized these workers — nearly all women, and predominantly Latinas — to take their pleas directly to the doors of voters across the state.
The result is millions in new spending on child care that will make permanent reforms ushered in by Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham, the nation’s only Latina governor, and Early Education Secretary Elizabeth Groginsky, and paid for with temporary federal COVID-19 relief dollars. The top line: The state will pay child care providers more money per child, more families will be eligible to receive free child care, and workers will get permanent raises of $3 over what they were making before the pandemic, creating a floor of $15 per hour. Advocates hope more raises will follow.
The New Mexico legislature is slated to approve these plans in the coming weeks, a momentous achievement after years of advocacy work led by the women who spend their days caring for New Mexico’s youngest residents, and 11 months of relentless grassroots campaigning leading up to the referendum.