Our changing—and highly vulnerable—future workforce

When the national KIDS COUNT Race for Results: Building a Path to Opportunity for All Children report was released earlier this month it was as if the proverbial other shoe had dropped. The first shoe that fell was New Mexico being ranked dead last in the nation in terms of child well-being. Now, Race for Results presents us with a first-ever, state-level index of racial/ethnic equity for children that shows New Mexico is also failing to provide equitable opportunities for ALL of our children to succeed at key developmental stages of life.

If we don’t act now to improve our child care, education, health, and economic support systems, all of us are going to face—indeed, we’re already facing—the negative social and economic impact of policies that keep our children from thriving. The Race for Results report clearly shows why ensuring that all our children have access to the opportunities that can lead to success is not only a social justice issue, but an economic imperative. New Mexico is a “minority-majority” state, especially in terms of our child population. While 40 percent of our total population is non-Hispanic white, only one-quarter of our children, ages 0-19, are non-Hispanic white. Almost 60 percent of our children are Hispanic and 10 percent are Native American—giving us the second largest minority child population, and the third largest Native American child population in the U.S. This is the makeup of our future workforce.

If New Mexico is to prosper, our communities of color must be able to fully participate in, and help drive, our economic growth and development. But, it’s clear we are not preparing our children with the skills and education they need to obtain the 21st century jobs that will provide them with the incomes needed to support families and pay taxes to support communities.

Race for Results provides a state scorecard on children’s equity—across racial and ethnic groups—in meeting milestones essential to succeeding in life. This Race for Results Index is based on key indicators that determine the likelihood that a child will become middle class by the time they are middle aged. The index makes it clear that, on a scale of 0 (worst off) to 1,000 (heading for success), New Mexico’s Hispanic (score = 363), American Indian (score = 293), and Black (score = 446) children are facing incredible obstacles to doing well in health, economic security, and education. Quite frankly, our policies and systems don’t even support our white children well; only nine states have a lower equity index rating for white children than does New Mexico.

We know high-quality preschool programs prepare young children to succeed in school, yet less than half (49 percent) of our Hispanic children are enrolled in or have access to preschool and kindergarten. Students who read proficiently by 4th grade are far more likely to do well in school and graduate high school on time, yet we’ve only trained 7 percent of our Native American and 17 percent of our Hispanic children well enough to reach this proficiency level. These are just a few of the systemic factors keeping our children of color from graduating high school on time. These days, a high school diploma is the basic requirement for getting either higher education or a job that pays more than the minimum wage, but one-third of our youth (and 41 percent of our Black students) do not graduate high school on time.

Let’s get moving, New Mexico. We need to start all our diverse children on the road to success and a higher quality of life so we’ll also create a strong, capable workforce here. One of the best ways to do that is to put in place a high-quality, comprehensive early childhood care and education system that can provide access to all families who wish to enroll their young children. Such a system includes pre-natal programs, home visiting, preventive health care, child care assistance for those who need it, and solid pre-K programs that prepare children for school. In addition, let’s support adequate funding for K-12 education, spent wisely on evidence-based educational methods that help kids learn and gain the skills needed for our workforce. America was built on the idea that everyone should have equal opportunity to succeed, so let’s start working in New Mexico to ensure all our children get these economic, educational, and health opportunities to reach their full potential—from the earliest ages on.

Chris Hollis is the KIDS COUNT Program Director for NM Voices for Children. Reach her at chollis@nmvoices.org.

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