Monique Ortega and her children (Photo courtesy of Monique Ortega)
Monique Ortega and her children (Photo courtesy of Monique Ortega)

“It really brought me joy to hear that other moms are going to be able to experience education without feeling like they’re being held back.”

A new Arizona law will give single mothers the chance to pursue higher education full time while receiving childcare assistance, getting rid of a previous work requirement of at least 20 hours a week. 

Gov. Doug Ducey signed House Bill 2016 into law on April 28. It will go into effect 90 days after the legislative session ends. 

Monique Ortega, a Tucson single mom of a 6- and 8-year-old, said the legislation will change her educational trajectory. 

Ortega had tried working in customer service to support her children. She started feeling like it was time for something new, but without a degree, she wasn’t sure where to turn. To be eligible for childcare assistance before the new legislation, she would have had to work full time, or work at least 20 hours a week while also pursuing “education … activities related to employment.” 

“I didn’t have confidence,” she said. “I didn’t have experience, and it really just made me feel like I couldn’t get a job that could sustain me and my children financially.” 

She began pursuing a certificate in logistics and supply chain management at Pima Community College in early 2020. 

She soon decided she wanted to go much further than just her certificate. She’s going to continue taking classes until she earns her associate’s degree in logistics and then pursue a bachelor’s degree in business or finance, likely at the University of Arizona. 

“It’s really been a journey and I don’t want to give up now,” she said. “I’m really excited about what’s next.” 

How It Works

To qualify for childcare assistance in Arizona, families have to be at or below 165% of the federal poverty level (FPL) and have children under the age of 13. The FPL for a family of three is an annual income of $21,960 or less. 

The state subsidizes childcare payments for the family but still requires them to pay $0.50-$5 copayments per day, based on their income level. 

Not all families have to work in order to qualify. They can participate in the state’s JOBS (Job Opportunities and Basic Skills) Program. Exceptions are also made for teen parents completing high school, as well as families who are unable to care for children due to a health condition, participation in a drug treatment program, participation in a court-ordered community service program, residency in a homeless or domestic violence shelter, or a situation as determined by the Department of Child Safety (DCS).

The American Families Plan proposed by President Joe Biden aims to help even more families handle childcare and other costs. 

The plan calls for two years of free preschool and two years of free community college for everyone in the country. It also includes assistance to low-income families, so they don’t have to spend more than 7% of their income on child care. 

The plan would also extend the child tax credit expansion included in the American Rescue Plan earlier this year. The credit increased from $2,000 to $3,600 for children under age 6, and to $3,000 for children under age 18. The credit also only previously applied to children ages 16 and younger. Now it also includes 17-year-olds. 

Juggling School and Family

The Women’s Foundation of Southern Arizona, a nonprofit that advocated for the bill’s passage, estimates the average monthly cost of childcare at a daycare center in the state is more than $800. 

The state also has a shortage of available child care. A Bipartisan Policy Center study found that Arizona has 304,180 infants and toddlers who need child care but only 234,270 slots to accommodate them, with poor and rural families most likely to be left out. 

Ortega said she has had difficulty finding childcare in the past, with some places unable to accept both of her children. 

Without the new law, she said, she couldn’t have followed her dream of finding new opportunities for supporting her family. 

“[Education] gives you confidence when you’re going out and looking for a job,” Ortega said. “I feel like they give you tools you may need in finding a job that you want.” 

A Cost-Saving Measure

With the new law, single moms can also enroll full time in a “remedial education activity” or vocational program, as long as they can show they are working toward an occupation that would pay enough to “eliminate the need for public assistance.”

According to Women’s Foundation of Southern Arizona there are at least 33,000 single mothers in the state’s labor force who could benefit from the new legislation.

The nonprofit says the state will save $20,000 per year for each family who moves up in earnings and is able to forgo public assistance. 

Ortega said she was happy to see the bill pass—not just for her own future, but also for other moms like her. 

“It really brought me joy to hear that other moms are going to be able to experience education without feeling like they’re being held back,” she said. “I feel like this is going to bring a lot of single moms back to school.”