by Robert Nott, Santa Fe New Mexican
January 17, 2017

Nearly all New Mexico children have health care insurance, and sharply fewer of the state’s teenagers are abusing drugs and alcohol, a new report says. Overall, however, New Mexico remains a tough place for kids.

About 3 in 10 New Mexico children live in poverty, more than 3 in 4 kids aren’t learning reading and math as they should and nearly 3 in 10 don’t graduate from high school on time, according to the annual New Mexico Kids Count Data Book from New Mexico Voices for Children, an Albuquerque-based advocacy group.

For the second year in a row, New Mexico ranked 49th among states for child well-being, the report says.

The report echoes previous studies by New Mexico Voices for Children and others when it comes to the state of New Mexico’s children.

The annual Quality Counts report, released this month by the national Education Week magazine, found public school students in New Mexico have the poorest chance for success among students nationwide because of factors such as the state’s high poverty rate, its students failing to meet learning goals in reading and math and its low graduation rate.

Still, the state has made progress in some areas when it comes to children, said James Jimenez, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children.

Only 4 percent of children in the state do not have health insurance, for example. The number of teens abusing drugs and alcohol has dropped considerably to the point where New Mexico is now the fourth best state in the nation for those statistics. And New Mexico has moved up from near the bottom, now ranking 38th, in the number of rate of low birth-weight babies.

“This proves that if you make a concerted effort to invest in certain kinds of public policy, we can improve our ranking,” Jimenez said.

“Look at children without health care. We made some tremendous strides. Why? Because we did the Medicaid expansion so that thousands of kids who did not have health insurance before now have it.”

He said investments in home visits for expectant mothers also have helped to build a support network for first-time parents and to help them understand what it means to deliver a healthy baby.

As it has in the past, New Mexico Voices for Children was to unveil the full report on child well-being at a news conference at the state Capitol on Tuesday as the Legislature convened for its regular annual session.

The report comes as lawmakers are trying to grapple with a budget crunch brought on in large part by the collapse of the oil and gas industry and the resulting drop in tax revenue.

Some of the report’s policy suggestions will be considered by legislators. For example, the report advocates for raising the state’s minimum wage from $7.50. Two bills have been introduced that would do just that — one to $8.50 per hour and the other to $15 per hour.

Another policy recommendation — investing more money in early childhood education programs — also will be on the Legislature’s agenda. Several Democrats are pushing for a constitutional amendment that would let voters decide whether to pull money from the state’s Permanent Land Grant Fund to channel into pre-kindergarten programs.

The Legislature has previously rejected proposals to pull more money out of the permanent fund. Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed a $1 increase in the minimum wage in 2013.

“What we need is for the Legislature to prioritize children,” Jimenez said. “And we need the governor to say that child well-being is important to her.”

Still, he said, “We haven’t made enough progress and in the aggregate, we rank 49th. That is not acceptable.”

The basics of the report from New Mexico Voices for Children:
• 29 percent, or 141,000, of the state’s children live in poverty, the second-highest rate of child poverty for any state.
• More than a third of children live in a household where no parent has a secure full-time job.

• 77 percent of fourth graders are not reading at grade level.

• 79 percent of eighth graders are not proficient in math.

• 28 percent of students do not graduate on time. The national average is 18 percent. Gov. Susana Martinez announced Monday that the graduation rate for the class of 2016 was 71 percent, up from 68.5 for the previous class.

Since 2000, New Mexico has ranked somewhere between 43rd and 50th among states in the national Kids Count Data Book produced by the nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore.

The New Mexico Voices for Children report uses statistics for 2014-15 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.

Jimenez said it is an evidence-based study that allows policymakers to come up with plans to address the many problems facing children in the state.

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