Micaela Baca never expected she would play a role in passing a state law. She aged out of foster care in New Mexico at age 18, and wanted to get involved in local advocacy for other kids and youth in foster care. When she came across the New Mexico Child Advocacy Network (NMCAN), she found the perfect fit.
“Through NMCAN, I was able to say what I felt needed work and what problems I had within the foster care system,” Baca said. “Employment was one of those problems, because while in the system, I received a stipend so I didn’t need to have a job. I could support myself and my child through this monthly stipend, but when you turn 21 you’re no longer eligible.”
Baca began applying for jobs and interviewing, but no one would hire her because she didn’t have any job experience. So she focused her advocacy on employment for foster youth, knowing that many of her peers faced the same obstacle.
Along with NMCAN staff, Baca and a group of her peers, including Alyssa Otero, Nick Livingston, Elijah Davis, Andrew Salazar and Hope Alvarado, developed and worked for the passage of New Mexico Senate Bill 231, the Foster Youth Tax Credits Law. The bill was signed by Governor Susana Martinez (R) on March 1, 2018, and states that taxpayers who employ “qualified foster youth” for at least 20 hours per week may claim a tax credit of up to $1,000.
New Mexico is the first state to pass a law of this kind. An advocacy push is afoot to pass similar legislation at the federal level as well.
On Friday, April 27, nearly 100 legislators, community members, NMCAN youth advocates and staff gathered at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to celebrate. Sandra Gasca-Gonzalez, director of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, spoke at the event.
“This tax credit law is so important for New Mexico and for foster youth, but it’s more important for the country,” Gasca-Gonzalez said. “The country has been talking about this for years, and you all have made it happen. I see you as pioneers, because we can use this as a model for the rest of the country.”
State Sen. George K. Muñoz (D) sponsored the bill while state Rep. Javier Martinez (D) carried the bill on the House floor. At the breakfast, Muñoz thanked his peers for their support, and emphasized the crucial role of the group of foster youth in the bill being passed.
“(The youth) told senators what it was like for them, what would happen in their lives and what would change,” Muñoz said. “That’s what’s made the difference in the legislation. They’re the ones who passed the bill, not me.”
Getting the bill all the way to the governor’s desk required long days and late nights of the group of young adults at the Capitol building in Santa Fe, which is about an hour’s drive from Albuquerque.
“It was amazing to partner with young people through every step of the process,” said Arika Sanchez, director of policy and advocacy at NMCAN. “I could literally see them gaining confidence as they realized that legislators were listening to them and their voices and experiences matter.”
Employment is a crucial issue for former and current foster youth, who often leave the child welfare system without the life experiences and family support needed to help them become successful adults.
Ezra Spitzer, executive director of NMCAN, said Americans love the “bootstrap” story, believing that if one works hard enough, they’ll find success. But for many in the foster care system, he said, that’s not the case.
“[Foster youth] are told that a lot – you’ve just got to work hard,” Spitzer said. “But they also have no support structures, and things were taken from them that make life much more difficult. Some have been to seven or eight high schools; they’ve been through chemistry class five times and lost their credits because they changed schools. We need to recognize that they are working hard. They are doing their part. It’s on the rest of us to figure out how to right some of the wrongs so they have a chance for success.”
The new tax credit is already being utilized by some New Mexico businesses, and Baca is among the first former foster youth to receive employment because of it. Working as a receptionist at a law firm in Albuquerque, she is learning skills that she knows will help her achieve long-term success.
“I know there’s something way bigger ahead of us,” Baca said. “There’s so much more we can accomplish and change to make the system better for kids who are in it and kids who have aged out of it who feel hopeless. For kids who think all that they’re going to be is a foster care youth, troubled teen or abused child, we can change that and make people see us as something greater.”
A group of child welfare and workforce sector advocates has been pushing a national version of a foster youth tax credit called the Improved Employment Outcomes for Foster Youth Act. Youth who were in foster care at age 16 would be eligible under the federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC), which incentivizes the hiring of certain groups who struggle with barriers to employment. The credit began two decades ago as an incentive to hire veterans, but its scope has widened to include citizens with certain hiring challenges.
The original hope for the bill was that it could be attached to any tax reform plan that moved through Congress, but it was never absorbed into the law that passed last fall. Sean Hughes, of the California-based Social Change Partners, said “there will likely be few opportunities this year given the expected light legislative schedule.”
Hughes said the 2019 calendar, which begins in October, offers an opportunity because the Work Opportunity Tax Credit will be due for reauthorization.
Maureen Lunn is a freelance writer based in northern New Mexico.