by Damien Willis, Las Cruces Sun-News
January 28, 2017
LAS CRUCES — Nearly 40 percent of children in Doña Ana County live in poverty and more than 70 percent of children are not enrolled in early education programs. This is according to the annual New Mexico Kids Count Data Book released last Tuesday, the first day of the 2017 legislative session.
The county-by-county breakdown — a project of New Mexico Voices for Children and supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation — measures a variety of key indicators in four domains: economic well-being, education, health and family and community.
Statewide, measures of children’s health saw the most gains, with declines in the rates of babies born at a low birth weight, children without health insurance, and teens abusing alcohol and drugs. The teen birth rate has also declined, following a similar national trend.
“Unfortunately, the current budget situation in New Mexico is bad and may not improve for the foreseeable future,” the report states. “Too often and for too long, New Mexico’s children have finished as runners-up in the race to be a high priority in policy decisions.”
For the third consecutive year, New Mexico ranks 49th overall for child well-being, according to the 2016 Kids Count Data Book, released last June by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Mississippi is the only state that fared worse. In education and childhood poverty, New Mexico ranks dead last.
Among the significant findings revealed in the New Mexico Kids Count Data Book is that children in Doña Ana County continue to struggle against extreme poverty. According to the most recent data available, 39 percent of children in Doña Ana County live in poverty, compared to 30 percent of New Mexico children and 22 percent of children nationwide.
“The overall poverty rate in Doña Ana County is much higher, and median incomes are much lower,” said Amber Wallin, Kids Count director for New Mexico Voices for Children. “What we see in Doña Ana County is that, while the rest of the nation has largely recovered from the Great Recession, Doña Ana County and New Mexico has largely flatlined. As a state, we need to work on improving family economic security.”
Audrey Hartley, executive director of Jardín de los Niños, which serves homeless and near-homeless children in Las Cruces, deals with child poverty every day. When asked what more could be done to alleviate childhood poverty, her answer was simple.
“First and foremost, funding, funding, funding,” Hartley said.
To help break the paradigm of poverty and homelessness, Jardín de los Niños continues to increase services. Jardín recently partnered with St. Luke’s Health Care Clinic to do well-child checks, screenings and vaccinations, and to treat children who are sick, Hartley said. Though a grant from the Community Foundation of Southern New Mexico, Hartley will soon be able to set up a small medical clinic at Jardín de los Niños.
A few bright points
“Kids in Doña Ana County do better in two main domains — health and education,” Wallin said. “Doña Ana County has a lower infant mortality rate, a lower child abuse rate, and a lower child death rate than the rest of the state. And that has been consistent over time.”
The other area where children in Doña Ana County fare far better than the state as a whole is in education.
“At Las Cruces Public Schools, the number of kids proficient in reading is better than the rest of the state,” Wallin said. “The district fares better on so many education indicators. It has higher four-year graduation rates, higher graduation rates for English Language Learners, lower dropout rates and fewer students who are habitually truant.”
The Gadsden Independent School District fares even better on four-year graduation rates, including for students who are economically disadvantaged and ELL students. The GISD dropout rate is lower than LCPS’s, but the district’s habitual truancy rate (18 percent) is much higher than LCPS (10 percent) and the state (14 percent).
Early childhood education
Another area where Doña Ana County lags is in early childhood education, the report found. Seventy-one percent of Doña Ana County 3- and 4-year-olds are not enrolled in nursery school, preschool, pre-K, Head Start or kindergarten. This is far more than the 60 percent of New Mexico children of the same age not in school, and the 53 percent of children nationwide.
“A wide variety of research shows that high-quality early childhood education is critical to a child’s success later in life,” Wallin said. “Ninety-five percent of brain growth happens in those first five years.”
Frank Lopez, executive director of Ngage New Mexico, said his organization has long been working to address the problem in Doña Ana County.
“We’re working with a number of early childhood educations groups, and have convened a team of more than 50 people from 15 different agencies and providers,” Lopez said. “The Early Childhood Education Collective of Doña Ana County has put together an eight-goal plan to address the problem, and I feel like we’re turning a corner.”
Historically, the state’s various early childhood education providers and agencies have not worked together to see that the resources available are put to the best use, Lopez said. Furthermore, the funding for early childhood education is “fractured,” he said, with part of it coming from the Children, Youth and Families Department and the rest coming from the Public Education Department.
“Another problem is that parents simply don’t know about the resources available to them,” Lopez said. “We’ve come up with a mobile app for parents, which we’ll be unveiling in a couple of weeks. It will allow them to put in their child’s age, their address, and a few other details, and they’ll be able to find out what services are available for them. It will be available in Spanish and English.”
A need for collaboration
In order to alleviate the effects of childhood poverty, those on the front lines of the fight say more collaboration is needed between community members, nonprofit organizations, governmental agencies and the private sector.
“We really firmly believe that it does take a village,” said Lorenzo Alba, executive director of Casa de Peregrinos Emergency Food Program. Alba said the food bank’s numbers have remained consistent. Forty percent of their clientele are children.
“It’s not really making a dent,” he said. “We’re doing a better job of reaching kids, but we’re not reaching all of them. We’re never going to be able to reach all of them alone. It will take other agencies, along with the city of Las Cruces and the county. It’s a collaborative effort, and we’re such a tightly knit community. I know that more can be done.”
Casa de Peregrinos has long partnered with Jardín de los Niños, La Casa, El Caldito Soup Kitchen and other small food pantries to help feed hungry children. However, Alba said more needs to be done.
Tracey Bryan, executive director of The Bridge of Southern New Mexico, said she has seen what harnessing the power of the community can do. Her organization set out to improve high school graduation rates in Doña Ana County at a time when they hovered just below 50 percent. Now they are around 80 percent.
“That is three points away from the national average, and nine points higher than the state average,” Bryan said. “That is what happens when a community rallies around a single cause.”
A brighter future?
“We need to start really investing in kids and families,” Wallin said, when asked what more the state could do to improve childhood wellbeing. “The early childhood years are crucial to growing up to be healthy, productive members of society.”
Wallin said the state must invest in Pre-K, home visits and childcare services.
“We also have to support our teachers and the public education system,” she said. “When we have the highest childhood poverty rate in the nation, children are going to school with a lot of baggage and challenges. And our teachers are often a lifeline for those kids — providing support on so many levels.”
Lawmakers will face some tough decisions during the current legislative session, and moving forward, Wallin said.
“But our kids are not the problem, and they should not bear the brunt of any sacrifices that have to be made,” she said.
The 2016 Kids Count Data Book is available for download at https://www.nmvoices.org/archives/8488
Additional data for New Mexico and the nation can be found on the Kids Count Data Center at http://datacenter.kidscount.org/data#NM
Copyright 2017, Las Cruces Sun-News (http://www.lcsun-news.com/story/news/education/2017/01/28/report-do-ana-county-children-still-plagued-poverty/97143850/)