by Robert Nott, Santa Fe New Mexican
January 19, 2016

New Mexico has the highest rate of child poverty in the United States, according to a new study by New Mexico Voices for Children, an Albuquerque-based advocacy group.

In addition, more than 75 percent of the state’s fourth-graders are not proficient in reading, and nearly 80 percent of New Mexico’s eighth-graders are not proficient in math, the group said, based on its annual New Mexico Kids Count study. More than 25 percent of the state’s students do not graduate from high school on time.

The full report will be unveiled Tuesday during a news conference in the Capitol Rotunda as part of Celebrating New Mexico’s Children and Youth Day at the Legislature. New Mexico Voices for Children hopes its statistics attract the attention of lawmakers as they begin their 30-day session.

The results were expected, to some extent, because New Mexico’s overall ranking in the national Kids Count Data Book has been between 43rd and 50th since 2000. The state has never ranked higher than 40th since the national report, which is produced by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, was first issued in 1990.

But the group says chronic poverty has not been addressed sufficiently by state government. New Mexico Voices for Children advocates using gains from the state’s $15 billion land grant endowment to expand early childhood education. It says this change would move the state forward, getting kids off to a good start in school and systemically attacking poverty.

“I would say that child poverty is at the root of many of these poor children’s outcomes,” said Veronica Garcia, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children.

Some findings are encouraging. For instance, in 2008-09, 10 percent of teens reported abusing alcohol and drugs. That figured dropped to about 7 percent for 2012-13.

And the teen birth rate has dropped from 61 per 1,000 teens in 2008 to 43 per 1,000 in 2013.

The state’s child and teen death rate has decreased by 30 percent from 2008 to 2013, following a national trend.

Other indicators of child well-being have remained about the same. For example, more than one-third of New Mexico’s children live in families where no parent has full-time and year-round work. The state ranks 46th in that measure, as it did last year.

“But there are improvements, and those improvements are indicative of policies that were put into place several years ago,” Garcia said. “A big takeaway from the report is that things can change. We just can’t get hopeless and feel like we can’t make a difference, because we are seeing some incremental changes.”

The report uses statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, the National Center for Education Statistics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and New Mexico’s Department of Education to zero in on child poverty, teen pregnancy, educational achievement and health insurance for children. Some of the data dates to 2012-13 but some of it is as recent as 2o14-15.

Among the report’s recommendations is to invest more in early childhood programming, increase funding for K-12 education, increase the number of reading coaches and invest more in programs to prevent teen pregnancy.

The Kids Count data book is being released a week after a controversial ad campaign called New Mexico Truth that uses similarly sobering statistics to draw attention to impoverished children in New Mexico.

Albuquerque-based St. Joseph’s Children, a nonprofit affiliated with Catholic Health Initiatives, launched the $200,000 New Mexico Truth campaign last week using imagery and a title that satirizes the state Department of Tourism’s advertising initiative called New Mexico True.

Critics from both Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration and the tourism industry have accused St. Joseph’s of hijacking the state tourism campaign for political purposes. But Allen Sánchez, CEO and president of St. Joseph’s Children, says critics cannot contest the facts that poverty is contributing to low readings scores, dropout rates and prison populations.

To produce its ads, his group drew from some of the same sources that New Mexico Voices for Children uses in its report.

Both Sánchez and New Mexico Voices for Children have pushed for the last five years to use a portion of the land grant endowment to expand early childhood education. Republican Martinez has opposed the proposal, and so have numerous Democrats in the Legislature.

Another Democrat, state Sen. Michael Padilla of Albuquerque, is again proposing a state constitutional amendment to use a portion of the endowment for early childhood programs, generally defined as infancy through age 5.

The full Kids Count report can be found at Garcia said it will be distributed to the governor and state lawmakers by the end of the week.

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