As a full-time PhD student, with one child at the University of New Mexico’s Children’s Campus half-time, Naomi Ambriz used to pay $568 a month in child care. With newly available child care assistance from the New Mexico Early Childhood Education and Care Department (ECECD), her copayment is now only a third of that amount.
Ambriz, a fifth-year American studies graduate student and the student parent advocate at the Women's Resource Center, said she first learned about the temporary eligibility rule change that made graduate student parents eligible for child care assistance through the UNM Graduate Studies listserv.
Ambriz applied the same day she found out about the program.
According to Ambriz, it took three months for the state to process her application, but she was reimbursed retroactively for last semester’s child care copayment costs.
“Even if I taught or had a contract, all that was going back to day care, so (the lower amount) allows me more time to work on my writing and get my things done, versus trying to find a graduate or teaching assistantship to cover the cost of day care,” Ambriz said.
Ambriz is one of the first graduate student parents to receive child care assistance in the state of New Mexico.
On Jan. 6, more than 75 people attended a virtual hearing hosted by the ECECD regarding formally changing child care assistance regulations, including formalizing the emergency rule that allowed graduate students to receive assistance.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham used her executive authority last September to approve emergency changes to ease some of the added strain the pandemic has inflicted on parents seeking child care assistance, including striking the prohibition against graduate student eligibility.
Supporters say permanently removing barriers to access to child care could help the nearly 1,700 UNM graduate student parents – the majority of whom are women — compete for more sought-after jobs.
Undergraduate students between 100% and 200% of the federal poverty line have, in theory, been eligible to receive state aid to cover child care costs, but until last fall graduate (and professional) student parents have been expressly prohibited.
Olé, a local community advocacy organization that focuses on issues that benefit working families, has been organizing workers and child care providers around the issue of child care accessibility since 2010, according to Matthew Henderson, the executive director of Olé’s Education Fund.
“What we found was the state was using all kinds of obstacles to limit the number of parents getting child care assistance,” Henderson said. “Even in cases where the applicants fell within the income guidelines, the state was using everything from the child support requirement to things like the prohibition against graduate students (to prevent working parents from receiving child care support).”
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The Daily Lobo spoke with assistant general counsel Brendan Egan and director of policy, research and quality initiatives Claire Dudley Chavez from New Mexico’s newly established ECECD about the administration’s intentions regarding the proposed regulation changes.
Egan said that the state is “going through the process of updating and amending our own regulations, hoping to expand access to child care in New Mexico for all families who qualify.”
Representatives from the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, Olé, a number of local child care providers and other interested community representatives spoke in favor of the changes during the hearing. Some had specific recommendations on how to wordsmith the language or pointed out what was still not being addressed, but no one in attendance spoke against the proposed changes overall.
Outside of graduate students being prohibited from receiving care, Olé’s Henderson said there are other codified barriers to access the organization wants the state to officially change.
Chief among the proposed changes is the removal of the requirement to file for court-ordered child support in order to apply for child care assistance.
Henderson said that separated parents were being forced to go through the court to make child support agreements, even if they were happy with their current arrangements.
“It was injecting a lot of tension into relationships that already had their challenges. It was taking informal child support agreements that were working and converting them into court-ordered agreements that didn’t work,” Henderson said.
Melissa Bendt, a third-year American studies PhD student and parent, said her department has been uniquely supportive of graduate student parents.
“I’ve been very fortunate that my department has been very tolerant about things like my kids going to seminars with me,” Bendt said.
She added that a lot of students don’t have the flexibility she has enjoyed.
“A lack of access to child care is a de facto glass ceiling that systematically targets women, and particularly women of color, and bars us from education,” Bendt said, adding that many professions require graduate degrees for full employment.
Bendt said she thinks this also ties into the larger issue of benefits and compensation for graduate student employees on campus.
“Access to child care through the state is a really important step,” Bendt said. “At the same time, it also says something about the income levels of graduate student employees that we would be eligible for state-assisted child care.”
Tim Davis, an attorney for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, echoed these sentiments.
“Every parent, regardless of their income, should be able to go to work (or school) knowing that they are leaving their children in good hands,” Davis said. “They should have the ability to continue their educations. They should have the ability to pursue job opportunities and not be forced with an impossible decision of not pursuing job opportunities or not continuing their education because they need to stay home and make sure that their child has a safe learning environment.”
UNM graduate students have been advocating for these rule changes for years, according to Naguru “Nikhil” Reddy, the president of the UNM Graduate and Professional Student Association.
“This is definitely a positive step towards making grad students who are parents’ lives easier,” Reddy said. “With the increase in costs everywhere — especially child care — this is a significant step toward reducing financial burden on students.”
Lissa Knudsen is the news editor at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @lissaknudsen