Public investments in our precious resources must be smart, sustainable

New Mexico has a long history of forging innovative solutions to a whole host of problems. Our knowhow and ingenuity have influenced everything from the creation of the personal computer to the exploration of the moon, Mars, and beyond. Surely we can come up with workable solutions for the myriad problems we face here at home.

One long-term problem—child poverty—has worsened and recently released Census numbers drop New Mexico to the very bottom in the nation, with 30 percent of our children living at or below the poverty level (just $24,250 for a family of four). Poverty is a complex issue, but one that we ignore at our peril. Brain science and biology show us that the damaging effects of poverty on a young child’s development are irreversible. In other words, if we do not counteract the effect of poverty during childhood, we have little hope of abating it at all. States like New Mexico, with small populations, cannot afford to allow nearly a third of its children to fail to meet their full potential. Our future depends too much upon it.

Photo of the Gila River Lower Box Canyon

Photo by Mike Howard, BLM New Mexico

Access to water, particularly in the more agrarian areas of our state, is also a long-term problem and an issue upon which our future depends. Unfortunately, there are some in New Mexico who seem bent on one particularly expensive and ineffectual solution—the Gila River diversion. The diversion of the river, via a series of reservoirs and pipelines, will cost the state an estimated $1 billion. Even at that price tag, it will only allow New Mexico to purchase water from the state of Arizona during those rare times when the river is at or above peak flow. Any water diverted from the Gila during high spring runoff and in wet years would be held in reservoirs, where some would be lost to seepage and evaporation, before being piped over the continental divide for use in Deming.

Over the last decade, local stakeholders and water experts have proposed numerous sustainable alternatives to the diversion project that would help meet the region’s water needs and put people to work, while protecting both taxpayers and the river ecosystem. These alternatives could include forest and watershed restoration projects, irrigation efficiency upgrades, improvements to existing public water systems, and groundwater protection projects, to name a few.

While the estimated cost of the Gila diversion has risen exponentially—from around $300 million, to $600 million and, finally, the current $1 billion—the amount of funding for the project that New Mexico would receive from the federal government has dropped from $128 million to just $100 million. New Mexico would still be eligible to receive about $66 million in federal funds for the alternative projects.

To embark on a $1 billion project at a time when the state faces shrinking revenues seems fiscally irresponsible at best. Add to that the fact that the state still underfunds the anti-poverty programs for young children that have been shown to have the best long-term results—programs like home visiting, high-quality child care, and pre-kindergarten—and the idea is downright incomprehensible. Some of our lawmakers are taking a wait-and-see approach to expanding these early childhood programs even though they are proven to be effective. It’s unfortunate that those making decisions about the Gila River diversion are not being similarly cautious.

Water is a precious resource, but there are better, smarter and more cost-effective ways of meeting the state’s water needs. Our children are also a precious resource, yet we continue to allow them to rank at the bottom of the nation in well-being. That we would divert taxpayer dollars that could be used to improve their outcomes in order to build a questionable and fiscally irresponsible boondoggle is unacceptable.

Download our report, The Gila River Diversion: A drain on limited state resources that are better spent elsewhere, here (pdf).

Veronica C. García, Ed.D., is Executive Director of New Mexico Voices for Children.

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Thank New Mexico leaders who are standing with kids in support of parks fund

Parks matter for our kids. More time spent outdoors, connecting with nature and with family, brings tremendous health benefits to children – from decreased obesity to improved distance vision. New Mexico families benefit from numerous parks around the state that boast a collection of landscapes that are as diverse as they are beautiful. Many of these parks were made possible, in full or in part, by the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). That fund is in danger, however, as it is set to expire if Congress takes no action by September 30.

For 50 years, the LWCF has funded dozens of parks and outdoor recreation areas in New Mexico for our kids and families to enjoy with moneys collected from the proceeds of offshore oil drilling. Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge and Petroglyph National Monument are just two of the parks that LWCF helped fund in our state, but they are two of the most critical because they are located in urban Albuquerque and give kids and their families easy access to safe recreation and education opportunities.

Over the summer, members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation have made a strong stand for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and for the parks that help keep our kids healthy. U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich and U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham visited Petroglyph National Monument in August to restate their commitment to the LWCF and its positive impact on children and families. Earlier this month, Sen. Tom Udall visited the breath-taking Valles Caldera National Preserve to take the same stand. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan also supports reauthorizing the fund.

We are fortunate to have representatives in Congress willing to fight for important quality-of-life programs that enrich our state. With Sen. Udall’s position as ranking member of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, and Sen. Heinrich’s seat on the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, our delegation is well-positioned to fight to keep LWCF in place and make a difference in our children’s lives for years to come.

We appreciate their leadership, and we also know that it’s not always easy to be a leader. To make sure that Sen. Udall, Sen. Heinrich, Rep. Lujan Grisham and Rep. Lujan know that New Mexico supports their strong stance on the LWCF, sign New Mexico Voices for Children’s petition today. Let’s thank our congressional leaders for taking a stand for parks and a stand for healthy kids.

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Looking at our public education system from a whole new angle

Imagine that our modern American society just recently sprang into being. Much like our current society, this new nation is made up of hard-working people who pride themselves on their ingenuity and forward thinking. As a brand-new country, we need to build a public education system from scratch. Imagine that we have no previous models on which to pattern this system so we must base it on our shared values, current needs and future vision.

Let’s assume that our shared value is that because society fares better when everyone receives an education, it’s right to ensure that everyone has the same opportunities to get a good one. Let’s assume our future vision is of a society where education allows everyone to reach their unique potential so they can contribute to society. As for our current needs, we’ll assume that: more and more jobs require a college education; in most families all available parents are in the workforce; 80 percent of a person’s brain development takes place within the first five years of their life; and adverse experiences like homelessness, hunger, parental alcohol or drug abuse, untreated mental illness, and physical and mental abuse, mar that critical brain development and detract from a child’s ability to learn.

Given our shared vision for the future, we would want our educational system to prepare as many children for college as possible. We would create a school calendar that engaged children year round. We might even consider having each child advance to new curriculum at his or her own pace. We would keep classroom sizes small to ensure that children received adequate attention and to keep the time spent disciplining to a minimum.

Since most parents work, we would likely consider having the school day last as long as the average work day. This would ensure that children have plenty of time to explore enriching subjects like the arts, culture, athletics, languages, and the environment, so that we’re educating the whole child.

Since education is important to our society, we’ll be paying for it with money from the public kitty that we all contribute to. We’ll want to get the best return on our investment, so we’ll make sure that children are prepared for success when they enter school. That means starting early in life.

Because we know that learning begins at birth and that the brain development taking place in the first five years of life is critical to success in school—and that working parents aren’t available during the long work day to ensure that their children are experiencing the kind of nurturing stimulus that drives brain development—we would probably create a continuum of care and education that starts early and complements the various stages of child development. We would ensure that all families understand their child’s developmental stages and are involved in their education whether it takes place at a center while the parents are at work or entirely within the home. And we’d ensure that families have access to the support systems that help them overcome the adversities that put healthy child development and learning at risk. Since educating our children is so important, we’d also make sure that those who do it are as well compensated as they are well-educated.

Sadly, we’re not in a position to build our public education system from scratch, and the one we have is predicated on numerous factors that are no longer true: when our system was created our economy was heavily based on agriculture, as well as manufacturing jobs that required relatively low skill levels; child labor was needed on the farm during the late summer to help bring in the crops; mothers did not work outside the home; and not only did we not understand the importance of brain development in the first five years of life, many children did not survive past the age of five, so investing in early education did not make sense. Prior to World War I, most Americans did not pursue education beyond the eighth grade, so college preparation was unnecessary for most students. Unless you planned to study for one of the few professions, such as medicine or the law, there was no need to attend high school even. You learned how to make a living on the family farm or business or through an apprenticeship in the trades.

We have adapted our old educational system to meet some of our modern needs. Many schools have adopted trimesters or other alternative schedules to minimize the amount of time children have off in the summer, but most schools still adjourn for the summer, during which time children without summer learning opportunities are especially likely to fall behind. After-school programs are neither available in all districts and schools, nor always free of charge. Child care is ubiquitous but quality levels vary wildly and even low-quality care is unaffordable for low-income working parents without financial assistance. Pre-K is on the rise, but most programs are only a half day and without wraparound services many working parents cannot take advantage of them. We are simply not ensuring that every child comes to school ready to learn. Nor are we investing enough resources to elevate those children who start behind.

One aspect of our imagined built-from-scratch education system that is true of our actual one is that we do invest a great deal of public money into it and we expect a good return on that investment. We’d certainly get a better return if we reshaped our old system to fit more of our modern needs. Since we all benefit from our public school system, we all have a stake in seeing it improved. Therefore, we all have a responsibility to let our lawmakers know what changes we would like to see.

Sharon Kayne is NMVC’s Communications Director. Contact her at

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Our baby steps toward expanding early childhood services are not getting us far

Thousands of adorable and inquisitive youngsters are trotting off to school for the first time this month. From all around the state these wide-eyed kiddos are beginning their school adventures. In honor of this new class, we thought we’d look back at how New Mexico prepared them for school, and look forward to how babies born this year will fare in their preschool years.

In 2010, the year this new class was born, 30,733 of New Mexico’s children were enrolled in the state’s early childhood programs that help children prepare for school: home visiting, pre-kindergarten, and child care assistance. If you think that sounds like a lot, it’s actually only about a quarter of all our preschoolers. Think that’s bad? It gets worse.

Despite all the legislative activity around early childhood services, only 28,701 children—or about 2,000 fewer—are benefiting from these same early learning programs this year. Enrollment has increased for both home visiting and pre-K—and that’s great—but nearly 8,000 children have been dropped from the child care assistance roles. That’s especially troubling because that’s the program that serves children for most of their preschool years. While home visiting focuses on the first year or two of life, and pre-K serves only four-year-olds, child care assistance serves kids throughout their preschool years.

An overall decrease in enrollment in early childhood programs is deeply troubling. These early childhood programs don’t just help prepare kids for success in school—they also help keep kids safe. Home visiting lowers the incidence of child abuse. More babies and toddlers are receiving it, the program still reaches fewer than 4 percent of the state’s children under the age of two. Child care assistance helps families place their children in quality, licensed programs where they will be safe. Without child care assistance, low-income parents have to cobble together a system of care from their friends, extended families, neighbors, and other low-cost or no-cost situations.

As it happens, 2010 was also the year that the idea for a new funding mechanism for these programs was born. Frustrated by the slow pace of legislative action to expand these programs, New Mexico Voices for Children suggested using a tiny portion of the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund. New Mexico has the nation’s second largest such fund, which was a whopping $11 billion in 2010. We thought it was shameful that our indicators of child well-being were dropping while this massive education fund was growing—it’s nearly $15 billion today. Instead of investing in our children we were investing this big pot of money in Wall Street. Spending just 1.5 percent of the $15 billion fund in our youngest and most vulnerable children seemed like a win-win, especially since Nobel Prize-winning economists have determined that investing in high-quality early childhood programs provides a better return on investment than Wall Street!

So in the 2011 legislative session, with a broad coalition of other advocates, we educated the Legislature about the benefits of putting the issue before the voters. As you probably recall, that proposal not only died in 2011, but has been blocked for five straight legislative sessions.

Those opposed to the move claimed they were afraid it would “drain” the fund. But it wouldn’t. If the Legislature had acted in 2011 to put the issue on the 2012 ballot and the voters had passed it, we would have had nearly $500 million more to invest in early care and education since then. Well over half of our babies and preschoolers would have access to high-quality care and learning services and their futures would look a lot brighter. The permanent fund would still have grown from $11 billion in 2011 to $14.5 billion today. Instead, we reinvested that $500 million on Wall Street, and today, fewer of our children have access to early care and education than did back in 2010.

Permanent fund graphic

The take-away is this: If we pass the permanent fund initiative, the fund continues to grow at a good rate, but we also invest much more in our children, and that pays an even more valuable and longer-lasting dividend.

So only a few of those babies born in 2010 are entering school this year with the best preparation possible. And in 2020, when the children born this year are starting school, even fewer will have had access to these services unless we make a much bigger commitment to them over the next few years.

To be fair, the Legislature has increased funding for these programs every year since 2010 (except for child care assistance, which was cut this year), and the quality of some programs has also been increased. But these incremental increases are just baby steps, and lawmakers are kidding themselves and doing a great disservice to our state’s children if they think this is slow-going approach is sufficient. It is not. Babies cannot put their childhood on hold, and every year the Legislature fails to make a sufficient investment, is another year our preschoolers lose out on what we know would make all the difference in their success. We’ve already let five years go by. We can’t afford to lose five more.

Bill Jordan, MA, is Senior Policy Advisor/Governmental Relations for NM Voices for Children. Reach him at

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New Mexico is 49th in child well-being once again: What will it take to make change?

Another year… another ranking at the bottom of the barrel. New Mexico has ranked among the worst states in which to be a child for so long that it hardly seems like news anymore. In the 25-plus years that the Annie E. Casey Foundation has been publishing the KIDS COUNT Data Book, we’ve never ranked above 40th. Most years, we’ve ranked in the bottom five, but we can and we must do better by our kids.

We have made progress in some areas. Over the last several years, child and teen death rates and teen birth rates have gone down, along with the percentage of children who lack health insurance, while high school graduation rates have gone up. (Download the New Mexico KIDS COUNT profile for the data. It’s also included at the bottom of this post.) While these are positive trends, they align with national trends, so our improvements don’t necessarily change our placement among the states because most other states are seeing these improvements too.

There are some equally significant negative trends as well—such as increases in child poverty, children living in areas where there is widespread poverty, and children whose parents do not have secure employment.

And then there are those indicators that seem intractable—where, from children attending preschool to fourth grade reading scores, we’ve seen no real movement one way or the other. When taken in the aggregate, child well-being seems to have flat-lined in the state. When will New Mexico’s lawmakers and leaders make improving child well-being their top priority? When will the people of New Mexico demand it?

When our children aren’t doing well it’s an indication that our whole state isn’t doing well. Our future workforce is being shaped now. Almost one-third of our children live in poverty, and children in poverty do not have the same opportunities their better-off peers have; opportunities that help them be successful in school and life. With so many of our children missing out on these opportunities, what kind of workforce will we have in the next decade or so? Will we have workers who are well educated, skilled, and ready to take on the challenges of the coming years or will we have a workforce fit for low-wage jobs?

Children do better when their parents do better, but unemployment is high and we were recently ranked as having highest long-term unemployment in the nation. Despite that, the state’s Human Services Department wants to take SNAP benefits away from children whose parents cannot find work. Our future parents and families are also being shaped now. With nearly one-third of our children living in poverty, what kinds of families will we have in the decades to come? Will we have parents who delayed starting a family until they were older, better educated and more financially secure? Or will we have parents who were still children themselves when they had kids, didn’t go far in school, and won’t do better than low-wage work if they can find a job at all? Better-educated parents lead to better-educated children. Children in families with less well-educated parents don’t do as well in school.

This is why poverty is generational. Poverty is so difficult to break out of because it puts children at a significant disadvantage—whether it’s a lack of health care, not enough nutritious food, no books in the home, no safe places to play outdoors, few or no opportunities that enrich them and stimulate the brain development that ensures them success in school, or the presence of chronic stressors that actually diminish this all-important brain development. For many children, it’s a combination of all of the above.

We can shake our heads and say other people’s children are not our responsibility, or we can demand that all children have access to the opportunities that put them on the path to success in school and beyond. Their futures depend upon it, to be sure. But so do ours. Today’s children, each with his or her own unique potential, are tomorrow’s doctors, teachers, entrepreneurs and engineers. Or not. They can also be tomorrow’s economically disenfranchised who will not reach their own potential and, therefore, will have little in the way of positive contributions to offer their communities and the state.

We can help kids in poverty reach their full potential, but only if we take intentional action and we take it early. As NM Voices for Children has been saying for years, one of the best ways to turn things around for our state is to make investments in our children in their early years. So much of a child’s life trajectory is determined in the first five years of life. Home visiting, high-quality child care, pre-K—these programs lay the foundation for healthy brain and social development and positive educational outcomes. They make up for the opportunities low-income kids so often miss out on. They work, and they are the best investment in the future that we can make. The state is increasing its investments in early childhood care and education programs like these, but the increases in funding have been incremental. Kids can’t put their childhood on hold, so when we fail to invest in those early years we’ve missed the best opportunity to put children on a path to success.

Our NM KIDS are COUNTing on Us campaign offers numerous actions our leaders and lawmakers can take to improve child well-being. It’s time we demand they put child well-being first.

Amber Wallin, MPA, is the KIDS COUNT Director for New Mexico Voices for Children.

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NM has the highest long-term unemployment and extreme hunger, so why does the state want to make parents work for food?

There’s an old saying that when you’re stuck in a hole the first thing you should do is stop digging. New Mexicans are used to hearing that their home state is in the hole. We are at the bottom of the nation in everything from child well-being to poverty to hunger. Despite this, there are some up in Santa Fe who want to continue to dig.

A report put out last week by Governing shows New Mexico at the very bottom for long-term unemployment. Nearly half of our unemployed workers have been out of a job for 27 weeks or longer. To be clear, only people who are out of a job and are actively seeking work are considered unemployed. Those who have given up ever finding another job are not counted. You have to be working hard to find work in order to be considered one of the 64,000 New Mexicans who are unemployed.

And New Mexico’s unemployed are working hard. Not only are 45 percent of them considered long-term unemployed, but these folks have also been out of work for 43 weeks, on average. That’s just nine weeks short of a year, and far longer than the national average of 28 weeks. While the long-term unemployed across the nation are either finding jobs or giving up after 28 weeks on average, New Mexicans are still hitting the pavement many months later.

They have to because New Mexico was hit hard by the Great Recession. We lost 36,000 private-sector jobs between 2008 and 2009. While things have improved, we still had 20,000 fewer jobs in May of 2015 than we did in May of 2008. As part of the federal stimulus, states were allowed to waive work requirements for people receiving SNAP food benefits. Some states have reinstated the federal work requirements for their SNAP recipients, but New Mexico continues to be eligible for a waiver because our economic recovery has been so slow. That, however, does not faze the folks at our Human Services Department. They’ve decided to decline the waiver so they can take SNAP benefits away from people who are still unable to find a job. They’ll even take food away from kids as young as seven.

A quick read through of the HSD document detailing the proposed rules change (NM Human Services Register Vol. 38 No. 13) gives some clue as to the department’s desire to turn away federal dollars for hungry New Mexicans. In order to continue receiving SNAP, recipients would have to complete an “Individual Responsibility Plan,” among other things. The title of the plan alone implies that only irresponsible people need assistance. The plan is described as a “tool” to assist SNAP participants in “long-term career planning,” by addressing their “barriers” to employment, setting “realistic” employment goals, and identifying the steps necessary to achieve those goals.

To be fair, some SNAP recipients may indeed benefit from such a plan. But if you lost your job because of the economic downturn and have done everything in your power to find a new one but can’t—because New Mexico still has 20,000 fewer jobs than it did seven years ago—an individual responsibility plan is worse than useless. It’s insulting. Taking away SNAP benefits because those 20,000 jobs still have not magically reappeared—despite the creation of all those individual responsibility plans—is adding insult to injury.

In a strong economy, work requirements are reasonable. New Mexico’s economy is still weak and job creation is slow. On top of that, almost one in three New Mexico children—or 28 percent—don’t have enough food to eat. These are kids who often go hungry despite SNAP, school lunch programs, food pantries, and the other charitable organizations that offer food assistance. If the folks at HSD get their way, some of these kids will be hungrier still.

Because it’s required by law, HSD must allow public input on these regulations before they go into effect. The rules change document is not easy to find on HSD’s website (but you can download it here) and neither is information about the public hearing on July 17. Perhaps HSD should come up with its own individual responsibility plan and put “improving communication with the public” at the top of the list.

The public hearing is Friday, July 17, 1:30-4:30pm, at the DOH Harold Runnels Auditorium at 1190 St. Francis Dr. in Santa Fe. You may also email your comments to or call the Governor’s office at 505-476-2200.

Veronica C. Garcia, Ed.D., is NM Voices for Children’s Executive Director.

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Fight Hunger by Making Work Pay

This handout was prepared for the National Commission on Hunger, presented June 24, 2015. Click on the image for a larger version.

Hunger Commission SNAP handout

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Hunger is far worse among New Mexico’s children than the population as a whole

Food insecurity-all v kids

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Kansas could have avoided its economic tornado by learning from New Mexico’s mistakes

After Dorothy Gale is swept away to a magical land in The Wizard of Oz, she spends the rest of the iconic movie trying to get back to Kansas—the black-and-white Kansas of the Dust Bowl. One has to wonder, though, if she had been swept away from the Kansas of 2015 would she still be so keen to get back? While Kansas has recovered from the severe precipitation drought of the 1930s it is now in the grips of a very different kind of disaster—a dehydrated state budget that’s been drained of enough money to pay for vital services like education, public health, and first responders.

Kansas’ self-inflicted fiscal drought is due to extreme income tax cuts, which are bleeding the budget dry. The Kansas Legislature recently passed a $6.4 billion budget for the coming fiscal year—a budget, incidentally that’s not much bigger than New Mexico’s—but it’s now looking at an estimated shortfall of $765 million. More than 10 percent of the money the state has already planned to spend has simply vanished. While Auntie Em and Uncle Henry may have gotten an income tax cut, Dorothy might be heading back to a school of over-crowded classrooms, drastically reduced learning resources, and discontinued bus service.

Spending cuts alone are not going to cover the shortfall, so Governor Sam Brownback is now suggesting raising sales taxes. (This is a bad idea for a number of reasons, but that’s the subject for another blog.)

Back in 2012, shortly after Brownback had shepherded his pet tax package through the Kansas Legislature, he assured the people in an op ed that the plan would be “like a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy” because it would spur the creation of new jobs.

It’s been nearly three years and it might be time for Kansas to start CPR before its economic heart is bled completely dry. Brownback would have been wise to look for a more realistic prognosis among other states—such as New Mexico—that had cut their income taxes in recent years. He might have seen that a state can’t will new jobs into being simply by cutting income taxes.

New Mexico, as you might recall, passed a top-heavy income tax cut in the early 2000s. Like the other five states that also slashed their income taxes during that decade, the idea was sold on the promise of new jobs. Of course, no such thing happened. Our job growth share rose by a tiny 0.6 percent and a recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out that it was more likely due to the huge increase in oil and gas prices during that decade. Oil and gas prices also drove the job growth that Oklahoma saw after its big income tax cut. However, the other four states that cut taxes in the 2000s—Arizona, Louisiana, Ohio and Rhode Island—actually saw a decrease in their shares of job growth.

Likewise with states that cut their income tax rates in the 1990s and the 2010s. On average, their job growth has been weaker than for the nation as a whole. Kansas, despite its massive tax cut, has seen job growth of just 3.1 percent since its cuts went into effect while the nation’s job growth rate has been 4.5 percent.

Income tax cuts are a zero-sum game when it comes to state economies. States can’t spend money they don’t have, so they either must cut spending (which often means cutting jobs) or raise taxes on someone else to make up for the cut. Essentially, the same amount of money that’s allowed to flow into the economy by the tax cuts is taken back out of the economy somewhere else.

Although New Mexico’s personal income tax cuts didn’t bring the state any economic benefits, at least they didn’t break the bank like they have for Kansas. Again, that was due to high oil and gas prices and a strong economy. Of course, the economy and oil and gas prices have all taken a hit since then, but New Mexico policymakers are still trying to conjure up new jobs by way of magic tax cuts. In 2013, we slashed corporate income taxes. We have seen some job growth since then but it’s been almost entirely in the health care sector because more people have health coverage thanks to Obamacare. New Mexico’s policymakers need to keep in mind that neither of these tax cut schemes have created jobs before they start to overhaul our entire tax system. Meanwhile, just like Kansas, we’re collecting less and less money for critical services like education, public health, and first responders. No wonder people are leaving the state. Kansas has been losing people to other states, too. None of them are leaving by way of tornado, like Dorothy did, but most of them are probably glad they’re not in Kansas anymore.

Bill Jordan, MA, is Senior Policy Advisor/Governmental Relations for New Mexico Voices for Children.

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How closing economic disparities for racial/ethnic minorities will benefit all

Since the start of the Great Recession, the economic disparities between racial/ethnic minority families and white families have increased. More and more racial/ethnic minority families are falling behind in an economy that simply does not work for them. Their children—too many of whom are held back by the detrimental effects of poverty—are less likely to do any better when they grow up. This situation affects society as a whole because the population growth rate of racial/ethnic minorities is higher than that of whites, meaning minorities will soon make up a higher percentage of our children and, eventually, our nation’s workforce. Without equal opportunities to the support systems that help us all succeed in school, this growing sector of the workforce will be less able to gain the skills needed for a high-functioning, productive economy. With racial/ethnic minorities making up 60 percent of New Mexico’s adults and 74 percent of our children, the state is well ahead of the nation in terms of this demographic change. What we do as a high-poverty state to decrease these economic disparities may form a road map of sorts for the nation to follow.

A recent report by the Working Poor Families Project (WPFP) reveals the severity of these economic gaps:

  • While racial minorities make up just 40 percent of all working families in the United States, they represent 58 percent of low-income families;
  • While 24 million children live in low-income families, more than half—or 14 million—of them are racial minorities; and
  • The economic disparities between white families and African American families is at its highest since 1989.

There are several reasons for the income disparities between racial/ethnic minorities and white families, according to the report. One of the main causes is that racial minorities are more likely to have low-paying jobs, such as those in retail, food services, health care, and housekeeping, than are whites. Besides low wages, jobs such as these have little opportunity for career advancement and provide few if any benefits, such as health insurance, paid leave, and pensions. According to the WPFP, nearly 60 percent of job growth since 2010 has been in low-wage jobs and the number of low-income families increased from 10.1 million to 10.6 million between 2009 and 2013.

Disparities in education also contribute to major differences in income. For example, in 2013, 52 percent of low-income working Hispanic families had at least one parent without a high school diploma. Lower levels of education limit a person’s access to jobs with family-sustaining wages. The lifetime earnings of a college graduate are nearly double the earnings for someone who did not get any education beyond high school. Low-paying jobs are also less likely to include benefits, which can make a big difference for working families. For example, without guaranteed sick leave, parents may risk losing their jobs simply by staying home from work to take care of their sick children. If they are allowed to stay home with a sick child, they will lose that day’s wages.

How policies can make a difference

One solution is to provide racial minorities with more opportunities to earn the necessary education and job training needed for jobs with opportunities for advancement. The cost of attending a four-year university creates a significant financial barrier. States should increase the amount of need-based financial aid for minority and non-traditional students to reduce the financial burden of paying for education. States should also increase their minimum wages and index them so they automatically adjust to inflation. This would especially benefit African American and Hispanic workers, who are more likely to have lower-paying jobs. In addition, states must also enact policies that enforce equal pay to eliminate the income disparities that racial minorities and women experience. Hispanic women earn 56 cents for every dollar that men earn, for example.

Low-income working families also need affordable child care and assistance programs to help them provide for their basic living needs. Low-income families can spend as much as 30 percent of their income on child care expenses. Simplifying the application process for programs like child care assistance, Medicaid and SNAP, and expanding these services to underrepresented communities, would make these benefits more accessible to those who qualify.

Ultimately, closing the income gap between racial minorities and white families will not only benefit working parents, but it will help children who are living in poverty as well. Our economy will also benefit when racial minorities have equal opportunities to succeed, particularly as minorities continue to represent a larger share of our nation’s workforce.

Savanna Shay Duran is a senior at the University of New Mexico and an intern at New Mexico Voices for Children.

Also posted in Economic Security and Prosperity Blog, Racial and Ethnic Equity Blog | Comments closed