by Nicole Knight Shine, RH Reality Check

Nearly one-third of children in New Mexico live in poverty, the highest rate in the nation, an annual scorecard released this week found.

While the state’s child poverty rate ticked down from 31 percent in 2013 to 30 percent in 2014, the gain trails those seen in other states, according to the new Kids Count report, which ranks the 50 states on 16 measures of child well-being that encompass health, education, and economic welfare.

The annual scorecard found that more New Mexico children lived with parents who lacked full-time employment in 2014 than those in 2008—35 percent and 30 percent, respectively.

Amber Wallin, director of New Mexico Voices for Children, which published the 72-page report, said poverty holds back the state’s children.

“We will not make significant gains in educational outcomes and economic well-being until we make addressing child poverty our top priority,” Wallin said in a statement released with the annual ranking.

Thirty-one percent, or 157,000 New Mexico children, live at or below the poverty line, according to the report, compared to the national child poverty rate of 22 percent. Poverty is defined as an income below $23,850 for a family of two adults and two children in 2014.

The report pointed to some gains: high school graduation rates are up and teen birthrates and drug use have dropped. But the state has seen a steady increase in the share of children living in high poverty areas.

The annual scorecard, part of the national Kids Count program run by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, also looks at the interplay of race and ethnicity and child outcomes. Three-quarters of New Mexico’s children, the report indicates, are racially or ethnically diverse.

“Almost without exception, non-Hispanic white children have better outcomes than children of other races and ethnicities in all 16 indicators,” Wallin said in a statement. “Addressing these disparities has to be a high priority when three-quarters of the state’s children are racial or ethnic minorities, yet it’s not an issue that appears to gain much traction in Santa Fe.”

The report underscores the role poverty plays in shaping children’s futures:

    There is an undeniable correlation between poverty and poor outcomes in health and education, and there is no doubt that many aspects of poverty—chronic stress, familial instability, and the lack of economic security, among them—have long-lasting and powerful effects on children, the impacts of which continue into adulthood.

The report calls on lawmakers to enact policies to improve parents’ economic opportunities, such as funding for adult education, and to put more money behind children’s educational programs like pre-kindergarten.

Democrats control the New Mexico state senate while Republicans hold a majority in the house.

Veronica C. García, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, said state policies have already brought some improvement in child well-being, such as comprehensive sex education beginning in sixth grade.

“We’ve also seen big gains in health insurance coverage for children, which is due to the federal Affordable Care Act,” García said in a statement. “So while the overall picture isn’t very positive, it’s clear that we can improve things when we have the collective will.”

Copyright 2016, RH Reality Check (