by the Sun-News Editorial Board, Las Cruces Sun-News
June 23, 2016

Things aren’t getting better for kids in New Mexico.

That is the depressing but unmistakable conclusion from the release this week of the 2016 KIDS COUNT Data Book, an annual report on child well-being produced by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. For the third year in a row, New Mexico placed 49th, leading only Mississippi in the overall ranking.

The annual report ranks states based on 16 indicators grouped into four categories — economic, education, health and family and community. While the state saw minimal improvements in several categories, they were often not enough to keep pace with other states.

Perhaps most troubling is New Mexico’s drop to 50th in education – an issue on which Gov. Susana Martinez and Education Secretary Hanna Skandera have constantly been at odds with the Legislature. That lack of coordination can be seen in these results.

New Mexico is doing worse than before in two of the four categories under education. Fewer eighth-graders were proficient in math and fewer high school students were graduating on time than was reported last year. With 28 percent of high school students not graduating on time, we are a whopping 10 percentage points worse than the national average.

There were improvements in the percentage of young children not in school and fourth-grade reading proficiency, but not enough to keep up with other states.

The largest area of improvement was in health, where New Mexico climbed from 48th last year to 44th this year.

“We can give a lot of the credit for this improvement on the fact that New Mexico chose to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act,” said Amber Wallin, the New Mexico KIDS COUNT director. “Some 35,000 kids who were already eligible for Medicaid but who were not signed up received insurance when their parents enrolled. States that didn’t expand Medicaid didn’t see such a dramatic increase in children with health insurance. It just goes to show that public policies can lead to dramatic improvements for our children.”

However, with state revenue on the decline if may be difficult to maintain current commitments. Medicaid was underfunded by $85 million, leaving the state with a $417 million shortfall when federal matching funds are included, according to a report by New Mexico Voices for Children. That will mean cuts to doctors and hospitals and reduced services for patients.

“Health care is the only sector growing jobs in New Mexico, but this funding cut could put the brakes on that growth,” the report said.

Underpinning all of these issues is the state’s stagnant economy and persistent poverty. The 30 percent of children living in poverty is exactly the same in 2016 as it was in 2012, and is worst in the nation.

“Child poverty is the persistent problem that’s going to keep our state at the bottom of the rankings until we have the political will to address it in a comprehensive way,” said Veronica Garcia, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children. “When our kids aren’t doing well it’s because their families aren’t doing well.”

It remains the greatest challenge facing our state. We must diversify our economy and provide more and better employment opportunities for New Mexico residents. Until we do, our kids will continue to pay the price.

Copyright 2016, Las Cruces Sun-News (