Today, New Mexico’s new Early Childhood Education and Care Department (ECECD) officially gets to work! When the New Mexico Legislature created the ECECD last year, it was only the fourth cabinet-level early childhood agency in the country. For years, advocates and early childhood professionals across the state had highlighted the need for a more cohesive, equitable and effective early childhood system – one that would reach families in every corner of New Mexico and help them gain access to child care, developmental supports, nutrition and health programs and other services in a clear, easy-to-understand way.
But I also experienced our victory at a more personal level. I know what it’s like for families to need support, because my family needed support when I was a child. I grew up in seven different foster homes across New Mexico, and my memories of that time – including being shamed and forced to scrub school floors when I didn’t have lunch money – are seared into me.
Poverty hurts, and it hurts doubly when services that are meant to ease the burden feel out of reach.
My experiences have shaped both my politics and my personal life. I tell my sons, “If you see something wrong with your home – a broken chair, something that needs to be fixed – you have to do something about it immediately. If you don’t, you’ll start to walk past it hundreds of times without seeing it again.”
For too long, that’s how New Mexico dealt with poverty, including the poverty that affected our precious children. It’s generational. We don’t even see it half the time.
This is precisely why I’m so buoyed by the creation of ECECD. With the inauguration of this agency, New Mexico is saying, “We can do better. We must do better. And we will do better.”
What does that mean, specifically? A few things:
First, it means that early childhood programs and services will now be overseen by a single agency, rather than by multiple departments with different mandates.
By coordinating our prenatal-to-five services, we’ll create a clearer continuum. It’ll be a single place where families and communities can go for prenatal supports, home visiting and early intervention, nutrition and developmental support, child care, Early Head Start and Head Start and early pre-K and pre-K. It’ll also ensure a smoother transition between programs.
Second, we’ll also be able to communicate new opportunities to families and communities more easily (like the fact that New Mexico’s eligibility threshold for child care assistance is now 200% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) – approximately $52,400 for a family of four).
And when families and communities have feedback, they will be able to let the state know – and there will be a single agency that’s accountable.
Finally, there are a lot of great reasons to support high-quality early childhood services. Everything we know about brain development tells us that the first years are crucial for cognitive, social-emotional and physical growth. And everything we know from budgeting and policymaking tells us that investments in early childhood save governments far more in health, educational and other costs down the line.
But for me, there’s an unavoidably personal element to all of this. Simply put, high-quality early childhood programs help children and families break the cycle of poverty and move toward their dreams. And I’m delighted that today, New Mexico is doing more than ever to support families on that journey.