Quality of life for N.M. children, teens takes tumble

by Robert Nott, Santa Fe New Mexican
Jan. 16, 2018

Just days after a national study ranking New Mexico as the worst state to raise a family, a new report says that more of the state’s children are living in poverty, more children are going without health insurance and more teens and children are living in single-parent households than a year ago.

But not all is lost.

The New Mexico Kids Count Data Book from New Mexico Voices for Children says educational outcomes — including graduation rates and early-childhood education program enrollment participation — are improving in the state, and fewer teens and adolescents are abusing drugs and alcohol.

Still, the report reinforces data presented in last week’s WalletHub report which compared all 50 states in such areas as health and safety, education, child care and affordability, suggesting that New Mexico is a challenging place to be a kid.

“It’s a real mixed bag,” James Jimenez, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, said of the report. “The encouraging thing is that some of the indicators are moving in the right direction, but clearly poverty continues to be a major concern … it can compromise a child’s long-term ability to thrive.”

According to the report, some 145,000 New Mexican children — 29 percent — live in poverty, making New Mexico the second-worst in the nation in that category. The national average is 20 percent, with poverty defined as a family of four living on an annual household income of less than $24,300 for 2016.

The reason, the report says, is partially because of the financial challenges facing the state.

“While most other states have recovered from the recession, New Mexico’s economy has flat-lined,” the report says.

In some areas, New Mexico is simply treading water, the report says. For example, the number of “disconnected youth” — defined as those who are not enrolled in high school and not working — remains steady in the 9 percent to 10 percent range, similar to last year. The national average is 7 percent.

A more positive sign: The report shows the number of teens giving birth is dropping, from 61 per 1,000 in 2008 to 35 per 1,000 in 2015. “That is a historical trend we are seeing move in a positive direction,” Jimenez said. “I wish we could say why that is happening … That’s a positive for teenagers themselves as well as for the babies.”

As with past reports from New Mexico Voices for Children, a child-advocacy nonprofit located in Albuquerque, the group’s leaders plan to unveil the new report at a morning news conference at the state Capitol on Tuesday, shortly before the Legislature convenes for its 30-day session.

The report’s release is timed to coincide with the start of the 30-day legislative session with the hope of encouraging lawmakers to act on some of the issues.

“It’s an opportunity for us to highlight for the Legislature what the possibilities are and where they can focus the public’s resources in addressing child well-being in the state,” Jimenez said.

Some of the report’s policy suggestions will come up during the session. For example, it recommends increasing funding for early childhood educational programs, which both Gov. Susana Martinez and the Legislative Finance Committee have proposed in their respective budgets. But the report also suggests that some of that money come from the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund.

Democrat lawmakers Antonio “Moe” Maestas and Javier Martinez of Albuquerque have introduced a joint memorial asking the Legislature to approve just such a move this year. But similar efforts to draw money from that fund for a variety of purposes have repeatedly failed in the past.

And the report suggests that the state invest more in preK and K-3 summer learning programs, which both the governor and the Legislative Finance Committee budgets propose.

The 2017 New Mexico Kids Count Data Book will be available online at www.nmvoices.org/archives/9728.

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