By Walt Rubel, KRWG FM
June 17, 2019

Commentary: State child welfare officials in Louisiana and Mississippi this week are saying “thank God for New Mexico.” Again.

The annual child wellbeing rankings were released Monday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and for the second year in a row, New Mexico ranked last in the nation. Mississippi was 48th, moving up a spot, and Louisiana was 49th.

While it is impossible to place lower than 50th, our rankings in the four main categories considered in the survey show the state falling further behind. We were last in Education both years. This year, we were also last in the category of Family and Community Domain, 49th in Economic Security and 48th in Health.

As is always the case with this annual survey, there is a lag time with the data. Most of the statistics presented in this report were taken from 2017, and are compared with numbers from 2016 to determine if there has been an improvement.

And so, it will take a couple of years before the changes made in the most recent legislative session make an impact on our ranking.

The numbers show how much work there is to do.

In the 16 subcategories, we were last in both high school graduation and fourth-grade reading proficiency; and 49th in eighth-grade math proficiency, children whose parents lack secure employment and children living in high-poverty areas.

There were improvements in some areas, such as the childhood poverty rate and teen birth rate. And, because of the decision of former Gov. Susana Martinez to sign on to the Affordable Care Act when it first came out, we have always done fairly well in the category of children without health insurance.

But, there wasn’t a single category among the 16 where New Mexico performed above the national average.

The number of teens not working or in school has increased to 10 percent. Nearly one in four children in New Mexico live in “high poverty areas.” And, 45 percent of children live in single-parent families, according to the survey.

In response to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s call for a “moonshot” on education, not to mention a district court order demanding increased funding, the education budget passed by the Legislature this year has gone up by about $486 million, with more money for teachers’ pay, at-risk students and expanded learning programs.

Those at New Mexico Voices for Children, an advocacy group that runs the state’s KIDS COUNT program, also praised legislation to increase the state’s Working Families Tax Credit, which they said benefits more than 200,000 children every year.

It is not surprising that the data from 2017 reflected in this year’s report would be so poor. That was the tail end of an eight-year term by Gov. Martinez filled with budget deficits and constant fights over education reform.

“It is going to take sustained investment to undo the damage from a decade of underfunding all of our child-serving programs and services like health care, child care and K-12 education,” said James Jimenez, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children.

While the Legislature created a new agency this year to oversee early childhood education, it once again failed to provide a consistent funding source. New Education Secretary Karen Trujillo will end the strife of the Martinez years, but will inherit the same persistent problems that have plagued the state for years.

With the lag in data, the KIDS COUNT report should give us an idea of what kind of impact these new investments are making right about the same time Lujan Grisham is up for re-election.

We don’t need a moonshot. We need steady, consistent, yearly progress.

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