We’re 49th! A stroke of luck or the result of positive change?

The 2014 national KIDS COUNT ranking of states in child well-being just came out. There was a lot of uproar last year when, for the first time ever, New Mexico was ranked dead last—a position that had always been reserved for Mississippi. This year, Mississippi is back in 50th and we are ranked 49th. That’s good news, surely, but we have to ask ourselves … is it just a statistical fluke? Or, could our state possibly be starting to make progress in improving children’s lives? And, if this is so, can we sustain this movement?

On the plus side, with regard to policy, this year the Legislature appropriated approximately $175 million in new funding to support such programs as early childhood development services—the evidence-based NM Pre-K and home visiting programs, child care assistance, and the Family, Infant, Toddler (FIT) program—along with school-based health centers, K-12 education, programs aimed at mentoring youth and preventing dropout, and for additional child protective and foster care services. All of these programs give children a good start in life and ways to remain healthy, safe, in school, and moving forward. Since 2013, New Mexico has seen our child poverty rate drop somewhat, as well as the percentage of children whose parents lack secure employment, the teen birth rate, and the percentage of children living in families where the head of the household lacks a high school diploma.

On the other hand, like the proverbial Jack and Jill, New Mexico has tumbled down the hill of child well-being in certain areas. Since last year, more of our teens, ages 16-19, are not in school and not working. This is a major concern, as this age group is moving into adulthood, trying to find employment, starting families, or going on to college—and more of them don’t seem to be off to a good start, especially among our Hispanic, American Indian and Black youth, who make up the majority of our youth. More of our children than ever live in single-parent families, which tend to have lower household incomes and assets to provide for even their basic needs.

The effort and willpower it will take to improve our children’s health, economic status, education levels, and community environments will require a long-term, concerted, bipartisan commitment. Though we’ve perhaps taken a tiny step upward since 2013, some longer-term trends in our data indicate crucial areas we need to address soon if we’re to maintain positive momentum. For one, although fourth grade reading proficiency has improved in almost every state since 1992, it has not improved in New Mexico. In 1992, only 23 percent of our fourth graders could read proficiently; in 2013, unhappily, even fewer—21 percent—read proficiently. Given that this indicator of reading capacity is linked so strongly to children’s progress in school, graduation rates, college enrollment, and even career potential, New Mexico must address this problem as soon as possible. One factor related to this, which can be improved through policy change, is the fact that, over time, since 2005 to 2012, the percentage of three- and four-year-olds enrolled in preschool, a cornerstone to helping prepare children for school, has remained very low (37 to 38 percent). We need to provide more of our preschoolers with access to high quality early childhood development and learning.

So, let’s return to the question at the start of this blog. All of us—policymakers, advocates, parents, employers, service providers, and others—must continue to play our parts, in collaboration and in sync with others—to bring about lasting improvement in child well-being in New Mexico. Let’s not continue to just play “ranking leapfrog” with Mississippi. Rather, let’s bring about significant, lasting change. Let’s persist in urging our policymakers to invest more state monies in our children, where we will all get the most “bang for our buck” in terms of shared prosperity in the future. Let’s evaluate our efforts to ensure we fund what works and discontinue policies that don’t. Let’s set our sights higher and continue to move upward.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2014 national KIDS COUNT Data Book is available at: http://www.aecf.org/resources/the-2014-kids-count-data-book/

The fact sheet for New Mexico is available at: http://www.nmvoices.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/US-NM-Kids-Count-profiles-2014.pdf

Our updated NM KIDS are COUNTing on Us policy agenda is available here: http://www.nmvoices.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/KIDS-COUNTing-policy-agenda-June-2014-update-web.pdf

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

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