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Legislators, please don’t chop family services into smaller pieces

January 6, 2019

This is not the letter to the editor I wanted to write about the upcoming 2019 legislative session. I wanted to write about exciting initiatives underway to bring resources to disinvested and neglected communities across the state. But Senate Bill 22, which calls for creating the Early Childhood Education and Care Department, needs comment before it gets too far along in the legislative process. This proposed new Cabinet department would focus on children from birth to age 5, and that is what I find so disheartening.

How is a child different at age 5 plus one day than he or she is at 4 years and 364 days? The goal of progressive governance must be to create and sustain seamless care and services from cradle to grave.

Despite sincere efforts, New Mexico children have rarely budged from their spot on the bottom of national rankings for child well-being. Many of us remember that this is exactly why the Legislature formed the Children, Youth and Families Department, to better provide services across the life cycle. Has CYFD failed and if so, what would it take to fix it? Wouldn’t it be better to improve CYFD than cannibalize it to create another Cabinet department?

I have learned over the years that one of the most important things our at-risk children need is parents who have more money. New Mexico has consistently been one of the states providing a cruel, poverty-guaranteeing level of cash assistance to parents. Cash (federal temporary assistance for needy families) and food assistance (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), combined, leave New Mexico families well below the federal poverty line. Despite the measly $38 per month increase in 2018, New Mexicans who receive cash assistance have experienced a 28 percent reduction in actual spending power since the 1996 welfare “reform.”

Every analysis of poverty rates, addictions, high school graduation rates, overdoses, the drug-prohibition economy and its bloated carceral state, and alcohol-related deaths shows little improvement over time. In fact, too many indicators have gotten even worse. Despite millions of dollars, new programs, new bureaucrats and new helping organizations, our children of all ages continue to suffer. The 30- to 50-year-old adults, mostly men, who are dying of overdoses, suicides and homicides at obscene rates, were the children we failed in the 1980s and 1990s. Government at all levels failed them. Each new program barely plugged a hole in the dike, and the underlying problems continue to burst elsewhere.

Giving New Mexico children a better chance at life does not take a new Cabinet department, especially one isolating early childhood from the rest of family services. Asking organizations and providers to compete for grants and contracts for newborn to 5 years old and then work with the Children, Youth and Families Department for children 5 years and one day to age 18 is a step backward. No one can guarantee that this will not result in more children falling through the cracks.

It is time to end the legislating of New Mexico children and their families into a life of poverty, substandard housing, neglected communities and underfunded schools. There are whole communities with zero formal economy, places where the informal economy is the only economy. The minimum wage must be increased to a living wage. Basic income programs are being tested around the world with great success. It turns out that just as states like Utah have seen that housing the homeless saves money, many governments are documenting how the Universal Basic Income model of giving people money and dignity actually saves money.

New Mexico doesn’t need a new Cabinet department. New Mexico needs a commitment to social and economic justice that will lift up all of us — no matter our age.

Carol Miller is a community organizer from Ojo Sarco.

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