By Dr. Norty Kalishman and Fred Harris, Albuquerque Journal
Mar. 24, 2024

The civil rights leader James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” In other words, we can’t solve a problem if we refuse to look at it. Looking helps us know the extent of the problem.

The column “An optimist’s guide to depressing data” (Sunday Journal, March 17) takes the “New Mexico KIDS COUNT Data Book” to task for citing bad-news data about child well-being.

We understand. We, too, find it demoralizing that New Mexico has the highest rate of child poverty in the nation.

Deficit data are not a judgment about our children or their families, but rather point to the systems that have failed them. As hard as it is to face, bad-news data helps us see and measure the real pain caused by inequitable policies and oppressive systems.

New Mexico Voices for Children, which publishes the annual state “KIDS COUNT Data Book,” has relied on data for decades in the fight to improve child well-being. The data, of course, is only one tool in the toolbox.

NM Voices has also used policy research and analysis, advocacy, and the power of coalition with countless partners. Along with their many partners, NM Voices has used the data to educate the public and lawmakers about problems and solutions.

This has helped legislators and the governor to make changes in state policies and budgets that have improved the lives of countless children and families, including: the development of the Children’s Cabinet; creation of the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, Early Childhood Trust Fund, and Health Care Affordability Fund; numerous increases in the minimum wage; expansion of Medicaid; ending predatory lending; enacting dental therapists and paid sick leave; creation of and increases in the Working Families Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit that, along with other tax reforms and rebates, sends nearly $3 billion back to working families over five years alone; and, with the help of the voters and elected officials, the passage of constitutional amendment 1, allowing the state to direct some of the Permanent School Fund to early education.

And that is to mention but a few of the data-informed policy wins NM Voices has helped secure for New Mexico kids.

Despite having to work with lots of deficit data, the staff at NM Voices is an optimistic group. They do this work because they love New Mexico, its families and children, and they know that New Mexico needn’t be defined by how the past has defined us, but by what we aspire to be.

The team at NM Voices also takes pains to point to the steady improvements the state has made over the years, as measured by the data. Although the data take center stage in the annual “KIDS COUNT Data Book,” it is contextualized, and the problems are laid at the feet of their source: systems that fail to serve everyone equitably.

In line with that, the policy solutions that are included point toward fixing what’s really broken: the systems. They also make it clear that the data do not tell the whole story of child well-being. The data books do not tell the whole story, but shine a light on some of the challenges and point to solutions in order to spur positive change.

NM Voices was founded — as the Coalition for Children — by a group of concerned citizens 37 years ago specifically to find solutions to child poverty. Their first publication was “Kids in Crisis,” released in 1987. It was the first comprehensive study of the status of children in New Mexico. Everyone from fellow advocates to direct service providers to lawmakers were thrilled to have all of this valuable information in one document. It changed the discussion.

“First Things First” was released in 1988. This report was the first to take a look at the issue of early childhood at the state level and was used and referenced for many years.

While none of us likes the bad news, we’ve achieved extraordinary outcomes informed by data in these and later publications. And we have a great appreciation and gratitude for all of the advocates and lawmakers who have worked toward those achievements.

Dr. Norty Kalishman, of Albuquerque, is a co-founder of the Coalition for Children and the former chief medical officer for the New Mexico Department of Health. Fred Harris, of Corrales, is a former U.S. senator from Oklahoma and a member emeritus of the New Mexico Voices for Children board of directors.