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Without question, COVID-19 has plunged us into far more than a health crisis. It has created a tidal wave of change in our daily lives, and, indeed, the “cure” has been painful – nationally, 16 people have lost their jobs for every one person who’s been diagnosed with the virus, or about 120,000 New Mexicans.
So, while the conversation sweeping across the country is about reopening the economy, returning to normal, resuming our lives as we once knew them, for New Mexico, that’s simply not good enough. This moment gives us an opportunity to think beyond recovery to sparking an economic revival that carries our families from poverty to prosperity.
Economic revival can start here by taking the resources we have and strategically weaving them together into a holistic “ecosystem of opportunity” that supports the economic potential for every member of our community.
First – we have to help our businesses get back to business. We must have a vibrant and growing business community to generate economic ripples in wages, taxes, investment, purchasing from local vendors, and attracting money from outside the community.
They need us to support them as customers, and we need to supply them with the well-qualified staff they need to be successful. If there are employees unable to return to work, they can tap the flood of newly available workforce talent (experienced workers and recent high school, community college, and university graduates) to help them open safely and successfully. The technological transformation now essential to many business operations may even set the stage for any mom-and-pop business to reach more customers than ever before…and they’ll need tech-savvy staff to keep them at the forefront of innovation.
Next – we need to help every single person – unemployed, under-employed, or struggling to make ends meet – acquire skills and training to secure jobs that pay life- and family-sustaining wages.
And with 120,000 people newly unemployed, now is the time to work seriously to lift as many people as possible off the need for public assistance programs.
Why? Because these well-intentioned programs have the unintended consequence of trapping people in poverty and low wages with annual income limits (usually at 200% of the Federal poverty level) required to receive public benefits: $25,520 for an individual and rising in scale by household size. A family of four, for example, has a limit of $52,400.
According to New Mexico First’s recent paper: Families in Crisis: The Cliff Effects and Churning, 800,000 New Mexicans currently receive one or more social supports through Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. The New Mexico Child Care Assistance Program supports the families of 18,433 children with the cost of childcare for those who are working or pursuing their education to prepare for work. Another 26,000 people receive rental assistance for housing.
The financial “cliff” faced by those receiving assistance is that, if they were to earn more wages through a promotion, a job change, or working additional hours, the increase in their incomes may be offset by a greater loss of the financial benefit of the support: i.e. a $300/mo. raise may lead to the loss of $600/mo. in childcare assistance, resulting in a net loss of $300/mo. to the family. Even before the virus, the cliff effect negatively impacted the potential of people.
These programs need reform to support families in economically outgrowing their need for them by phasing out gradually…not an in-or-out approach.
Until that conversation is undertaken in a meaningful way, education, entrepreneurism, and economic development must drive the economic freedom of families. Fortunately for us, we have everything we need here to be successful.
Tracey Bryan is president/CEO of The Bridge of Southern New Mexico. She can be reached at 575-644-6453 or 575-541-7325. TraceyBryan@thebridgeofsnm.org