By Jacob Vigil and Derek Lin
June 6, 2020

Over the past few months, the resiliency and strength of communities all across New Mexico have been in full view as people come together to support each other through the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, the pandemic has caused disproportionate harm to communities of color by worsening long-standing social and structural inequities, resulting in dramatic disparities in health and economic outcomes for people of color compared to whites.

In New Mexico, Native Americans account for nearly 55% of COVID-19 cases, while comprising just 9% of the state population. Almost 70% of COVID-19 deaths are in San Juan and McKinley counties, which have the two largest Native American populations in the state. This is consistent with national trends where predominantly Black, Latinx, and Native American counties have far more COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths than do mostly white counties. These groups have historically been denied equal opportunities to thrive, and some have been intentionally left out of federal COVID relief.

While more federal aid to states could help ease state budget shortfalls, without a targeted approach to improving conditions for under-resourced communities, the nation’s health, education, and economic inequities will likely get worse. New Mexico lawmakers can help reverse current trends and create a broader and more equitable economic recovery by enacting policies that adhere to the three principles set out below from a new report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

1. Target state spending to New Mexicans with the greatest health and economic needs

State lawmakers must protect progress made in 2019 and 2020 in funding K-12, higher education, and early childhood education and care, as well as health system improvements. This funding not only kept workers employed throughout the state, but the programs helped build skills and provided opportunity for kids and families of color. During the recent special legislative session, however, lawmakers implemented considerable spending cuts, including cuts in education and other child- and family-focused programs. The cuts, which addressed a pandemic-driven revenue shortage, were made despite court-ordered requirements that the state increase education spending for students of color, and despite New Mexico’s continued ranking as worst in the nation in child well-being. Additional cuts to public education (which disproportionately impact children of color, who account for three out of four children in our state), higher education, and health care should be off the table for 2021.

2. Advance anti-racist policies that promote ethnic, gender, and economic equity

As demonstrated in the Yazzie/Martinez education lawsuit, Native American, Hispanic, and Black children have long been deprived of opportunities to succeed due to deep inequities in and regular underfunding of New Mexico’s education system. Adequate education funding alone, however, is not enough to create educational equity and promote economic mobility. Financial hardship, which has been the result of generations of inequitable policy, must also be addressed. Policymakers can do this by: increasing and expanding tax credits and rebates for New Mexico families in need; expanding eligibility and funding for the General Assistance Program; creating a new cash assistance program for all residents who meet income qualifications regardless of immigration status; and expand unemployment insurance for workers who are ineligible under federal rules.

3. Protect state finances for long-term economic growth and opportunity

Lawmakers must protect existing revenues by not enacting more tax cuts for those who don’t need them and by repealing ineffective tax breaks given to large corporations and the wealthy. Lawmakers must also consider new revenue options such as a health insurance premium tax that would go to supporting the health care, education, and other vital programs that New Mexicans need now and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

We have always relied on lawmakers to make these principled choices, but high ideals are needed now more than ever. White supremacy and structural racism created and perpetuate disparities in access to resources, opportunities, and power – disadvantaging communities of color and conferring privilege on whites.

The three principles and policies outlined above will help address the needs of those most impacted today and help respond to longstanding structural inequities. New Mexico policymakers just finished a special session to shore up budget shortfalls related to the COVID-19 crisis. During the next six months they will have more critical policy choices to make as the budget and public health crises continue. They can repeat history with inequitable policies and budget cuts that will exacerbate racial disparities and damage the economy, or they can chart a course toward an anti-racist, equitable, and inclusive state and a robust economic recovery that extends to all New Mexicans.

Jacob Vigil, MSW, and Derek Lin, MPH, are Research and Policy Analysts with New Mexico Voices for Children