March 2, 2017

Why New Mexico’s Legislature should advance a women’s policy agenda

Amber Wallin

I’m a political scientist, an advocate, a sister, a wife, a daughter, and a mother. I have a toddler boy and, come next month, I’ll add a little girl to the list of people that call me mama. Like many parents, I believe that raising kind, honest, empathetic, and civic-minded kids is the most important thing I will ever do, and raising kids who believe that everyone—regardless of gender, color or ability—should have respect and opportunity is a very big part of that for me. It is important to me that my kids—both my daughter and my son—know that being called a feminist is something to aspire to and that the 19th Amendment is a hallowed one.

Last year’s very contentious presidential campaign put the treatment of women—among other groups of people—in the spotlight. Leaving aside the ugliness of that debate, it does raise the larger question of how we as a country and as a state treat women and the issues most important to them. If we had a woman’s agenda, what would it look like? Since it’s looking unlikely that this issue will be taken up at the national level, more than ever we need New Mexico lawmakers to step up and act at the state level. And they can take some important actions despite the current budget crunch.

Amber Wallin, MPA, is the KIDS COUNT Director at New Mexico Voices for Children.

Women make up nearly half of the U.S. labor force, and working mothers are now the sole, primary or co-breadwinners for 40 percent of American families. So this is more than a women’s or family’s issue—it’s an economic one. But though women are more likely than men to attend college, have a college degree, and have attended graduate school, they consistently earn less than men do. And just as there is a wage gap between men and women, there is a significant wage gap between working mothers and fathers: mothers earn only 73 cents for every dollar that fathers make. Nearly 20 percent of working mothers earn the minimum wage.

New Mexico’s statewide minimum wage has not been increased since 2009 so inflation has significantly limited its purchasing power. In New Mexico slightly more women (57 percent) than men (43 percent) would benefit from raising the minimum wage from its current $7.50 to $12.50.

For a lot of working mothers, problems securing high-quality and affordable child care make these income challenges worse. In New Mexico, full-time infant child care averages almost $8,000 per year, that’s more than college tuition in our state, and those child care costs don’t even ensure care at a licensed, high-quality center. What’s more, the average costs for child care rose more than 70 percent from 1985 to 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Clearly, the cost of child care can be a huge financial challenge—especially for women making low or minimum wages.

New Mexico is serving 26 percent fewer children and families with its child care assistance program than it did in 2010. This is, in part, because of changes in the application process. But there are other problems. For example, to be eligible, parents must already be working or attending school. Child care assistance is not available for parents who are looking for work. This creates a Catch-22 for parents—they cannot look for a job without child care, but they can’t get child care unless they have a job. And though the law says that New Mexico can provide child care assistance for families up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level (or about $41,000 for a family of four), the state currently only accepts families making below 150 percent of federal poverty level wages. In a state with the highest poverty rate in the nation among people who work full-time, year-round and the third highest rate of poverty among women, more needs to be done to help mothers work towards their own and their children’s success.

Even when mothers can find affordable child care, many workers do not have access to sick leave or work schedules flexible enough to allow them to take time off to care for their kids when they get sick—a task that disproportionately falls to women. And, shockingly, the U.S. is one of the only advanced nations in the world to not mandate any paid leave for new mothers. Only 13 percent of American workers have access to paid family leave. Instead, mothers are left cobbling together time off, going back to work much earlier than is recommended by doctors, or risking their family’s financial stability to stay home with their infants during a crucial time for both the mother’s and baby’s health.

Several cities and states have passed laws to mandate paid sick leave for all employees. New Mexico should do the same. Not only is paid leave good for working families, it boosts the health of mothers and babies, helps prevent the spread of infectious diseases and improves productivity, making it good for employers and the economy as well.

These proven policy solutions are widely supported by the majority of Americans because they are good for families and the economy. They can help ensure that women have adequate opportunities to help themselves, their kids, and their communities thrive.

I have a quote from President Obama posted in my office that says, “We must carry forward the work of the women (and men) who came before us to ensure that our daughters have no limits on their dreams, no obstacles to their achievements, and no remaining ceilings to shatter.” Let’s remember that there are real, attainable policy solutions for improving the lives of women in our country, and that all policy-makers have a strong hand in ensuring that there are no systemic barriers for the women who want to shatter those glass ceilings.