SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico’s early childhood department has settled a lawsuit with anti-poverty groups, cementing access to child care subsidies for low-income residents.

Under the agreement announced between the Early Childhood Education and Care Department last Thursday, households can qualify if they earn up to 200% more than the poverty line, which is income less than $52,400 for a family of four.

The lawsuit was initially filed in 2018 against the Children Youth and Families Department and former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, alleging that eligibility for child care subsidies was reduced without following the proper rulemaking process.

Three years later, the advocacy group OLÉ and the legal group New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty have settled with the administration of Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who transferred child care authority to a new, cabinet-level department.

The groups say the newly created Early Childhood Education and Care Department even went beyond the demands of the lawsuit in making child care more accessible and affordable.

One requirement of the settlement is to give clearer notice to parents about program eligibility.

“ECECD is committed to ensuring that every eligible family in New Mexico can receive child care assistance in a fair, equitable, and transparent manner,” said ECECD Secretary Elizabeth Groginsky. “In the nine months since our department officially launched, we have worked to change regulations to make it easier for families to apply for assistance, waived all parent co-pays until July 2022, and continue to seek ways to expand eligibility for child care assistance for families in our state.”

Groginsky fought to keep child care centers open during the pandemic, even as unemployment often exceeded wages of the average worker. Child care facility owners credited her for keeping communication open by hosting a weekly phone call and offsetting low wages with direct cash bonuses to workers.

Resolution of the lawsuit is win for the nascent department in a challenging year that saw child care capacity fall due to distancing restrictions and demand spike because of school closures that persisted even as parents returned to their jobs.

Groginsky also expanded eligibility to parents who are graduate students.

“The department has sought out and listened carefully to parents, and the improvements to the program reflect that collaboration and the reality of working families," said Tim Davis, an attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. "The department has made changes that are truly groundbreaking and acknowledge that quality affordable child care is a bridge to opportunity for families and their children.”


Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.