By Emily Wildau
July 14, 2020

All children in New Mexico deserve opportunities to grow up in safe, healthy environments and get a high-quality education. But New Mexico hasn’t done enough to ensure that our children have access to the resources they need in order to thrive. For the third year in a row, New Mexico is ranked 50th for child well-being in the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s national KIDS COUNT Data Book. KIDS COUNT is a state-by-state and national effort that tracks child well-being data in four areas: economic security, education, health, and family and community. For most of the 16 indicators in these four domains, New Mexico is ranked at or near the bottom nationally.

While the Data Book is always limited in its scope – being a snapshot in time – the 2020 Data Book captures a point between three quite different realities. As most of the data are from 2018, the most recent data available, they reflect the results of the decade of austerity that followed the Great Recession. What these data do not show us is the impact of the investments lawmakers made during the last two years, which would likely have led to improvements. They also don’t reflect the current pandemic and economic slowdown, which have led to severe hardship for many families.

Still, there is some good news in this year’s KIDS COUNT Data Book. Compared to last year, New Mexico made small improvements in 10 of the 16 indicators. Over the past decade, there have been significant decreases in the rates of children without health insurance and teen births. Most notably, the rate of New Mexico’s kids without health insurance has dropped by 55% since 2010, largely due to the Medicaid expansion in 2013. We now rank 24th in the nation with just 5% of our kids uninsured – making this the only indicator where the state matches the national rate.

Our ranking is tied not just to how well we’re doing, but to how well other states are doing in comparison. Our ranking is also tied to several policy choices lawmakers made over the past ten years. During the Great Recession, previous administrations slashed spending for the education and health programs that support child well-being. The lack of significant improvements in fourth grade reading proficiency and eighth grade math proficiency is partly the result of decades of underfunding schools, underserving children of color and children from low-income families, and underpaying teachers. In 2019 and 2020, lawmakers began increasing investments in education in response to higher oil revenues and the ruling in the Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic and crashing oil prices have put our state leaders in a difficult position. Faced with significant state revenue shortages, policymakers cut many program budgets during a recent special legislative session, including cuts to early childhood education and care, K-12 education, higher education, and other crucial programs.

While the circumstances are unprecedented and some budget cuts are likely to be inevitable, it’s time that we stop accepting this as our only course of action. If policymakers rely heavily on more budget cuts next January, underfunding will only exacerbate existing racial disparities, which have already grown during the pandemic, and worsen child well-being outcomes. Our state leaders have the opportunity and the power to increase revenue by reversing corporate income tax breaks and other tax giveaways. They can also ask voters to approve the use of more money from the $18 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund. These are just a few examples of solutions other than deep budget cuts that would allow the state to balance its budget while protecting key services and programs that our kids, working families, and businesses need.

So far, New Mexico policymakers have prevented drastic spending cuts for many programs that are more critical than ever for child well-being, but if more federal aid for state budgets does not materialize, more cuts may be on the table next January. We have been on the right path for New Mexico’s kids over the last two years. We know that the austerity approach during the last recession hurt our kids and our state’s recovery and more years of stingy budgets will hold New Mexico at the bottom in child well-being. We also know that this year’s ranking does not reflect the great potential of New Mexico’s children, and we must continue to believe in and invest in our communities in order for all New Mexico children and families to survive during the pandemic and thrive in the future. Let’s remind our state leaders that even during incredibly challenging times, they have the power and responsibility to chart a course to a stronger New Mexico where all our children have the opportunity to reach their full potential.

Find more data for New Mexico and the nation at the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT Data Center.

Emily Wildau is a Research and Policy Analyst and the KIDS COUNT Coordinator with New Mexico Voices for Children.