by Robert Nott, Santa Fe New Mexican
July 21, 2015

New Mexico is again near the bottom nationally when it comes to the economic well-being of children, according to the Kids Count Data Book, a report compiled annually to track the well-being of children in the United States.

For the second consecutive year, New Mexico ranks 49th. It was 50th in 2013. The report has ranked New Mexico among the bottom five states for child welfare in most of the past decade.

The Kids Count report, compiled by the nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says 31 percent of New Mexico’s children are living in poverty, compared to 22 percent nationally. A Casey Foundation researcher called the state’s poverty rate the report’s most startling statistic, and the leader of a local child advocacy group said poverty is the state’s “biggest challenge,” a problem that calls for more investment in early childhood education.

The Kids Count report also says 79 percent of fourth-graders are not proficient in reading and 9 percent of children — about 43,000 — are without health insurance. The most recent data highlighted in the report is from 2013.

Florencia Gutierrez, a senior research associate with the Casey Foundation, said the national child poverty rate has increased to 22 percent from 18 percent in 2008, when the recession hit, and “that [data] is mirrored in New Mexico.” The state’s rate has increased from 29 percent in last year’s Kids Count report to this year’s 31 percent, a rate Gutierrez said was “alarming.”

Veronica Garcia, director of the advocacy group New Mexico Voices for Children, said the state’s poverty rate is cause for concern because it affects children in many negative ways. To break the cycle of poverty, she said, the state should invest more money in programs focusing on early childhood, usually defined as prenatal to age 5. Many advocates for early education say it helps prepare children for success in school, leads to more high school and college graduates, and reduces prison populations.

Although revenue for New Mexico is limited, Garcia said lawmakers and voters could try to expand early childhood education, using a portion of the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund to pay for it. The endowment, funded primarily through oil and gas drilling leases and royalties, is worth about $14.9 billion. Each year it benefits the state’s K-12 public schools and universities, but lawmakers’ efforts to tap its revenues to expand early education have gone nowhere.

Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, and most lawmakers have opposed using the endowment to fund early education. Democratic Sen. John Arthur Smith of Deming, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, has said he does not want to reduce the endowment, and he has refused to support a proposal by fellow Democrats to put an amendment on a statewide ballot that would let voters decide whether the state should tap the fund for early childhood programs.

The Kids Count report states that 62 percent of New Mexico’s children are not attending pre-kindergarten programs. Nationally, it is 54 percent.

But the report spotlights some improvements in New Mexico.

Though 26 percent of high school students are not graduating on time in the state, that figure has dropped from 33 percent in 2008. The rate of teens abusing drugs or alcohol has dropped to 7 percent in 2013 from 9 percent in 2008.

The rate of children living with families in which the head of the household lacks a high school diploma has declined from 21 percent in 2008 to 18 percent in 2013.

But those figures are all still higher than the national statistics.

The report notes that job growth has been slow in a nation still struggling to recover from the recession, but it suggests that a well-educated workforce can make the difference to turn the tide.

Minnesota ranked first in the report this year, followed by New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Iowa and Vermont. Mississippi ranked last.

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