by Rick Nathanson, Albuquerque Journal

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico is now worst in the nation in the percentage of children living in poverty, according to the Kids Count data book for 2015, which is released each year on the first day of the legislative session by the children and families advocacy organization New Mexico Voices for Children.

While the state’s child poverty rate improved slightly from 31 percent to 30 percent, Mississippi’s rate went from 34 percent to 29 percent, dislodging New Mexico from its 49th position among the 50 states.

The Kids Count program is run by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which tracks 16 indicators of child well-being that are used to rank the 50 states. Based on those indicators, New Mexico ranks 49th overall in child well-being.

The annual report is not all bad news for the Land of Enchantment, said Sharon Kayne, spokeswoman for New Mexico Voices for Children.

The rate of high school students not graduating on time went from 29 percent to 26 percent; the rate of children not having health insurance dropped from 9 percent to 7 percent; and the teen birthrate improved from 47 per 1,000 teens to 43 per 1,000 teens.

During the 2008 recession, “New Mexico made some of the deepest cuts in the nation in K-12 per-pupil spending,” according to the data book. That spending was increased in the 2015 legislative session, though still not enough to lift us above the “pre-recession per-pupil spending levels when adjusted for inflation.” Preschool enrollment for 3- and 4-year-olds declined drastically in 2010, and we’re just now getting back to pre-recession levels, Kayne noted.

The improvement in the number of children with health insurance can be attributed to the expansion of Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, while the lower rate of teen births is likely attributable to age-appropriate, comprehensive sex education in schools, starting in sixth grade, Kayne said.

Those areas of improvement mimic national trends, she said.

The data book also looks at the role of race and ethnicity in child outcomes, and concludes that non-Hispanic white children have better outcomes than children of other races and ethnicities in all 16 indicators, Kayne said.

In New Mexico, “child poverty is the main issue, and it impacts all the other issues and has the biggest impact on child well-being,” she said. “We’re not going to improve in child poverty until we help parents get ahead with programs to help improve their education, and until we support programs like child care assistance and paid sick leave.”

Other measures that would improve the lives of children and families include raising the minimum wage and bringing higher-paying jobs to New Mexico, she said.

Copyright 2016, Albuquerque Journal