by Cynthia Miller, Santa Fe New Mexican
February 19, 2017

A new report on the well-being of children in New Mexico has found that some key policy changes — such as expanding access to child care assistance, increasing investments in early childhood programs, enacting a higher statewide minimum wage and overhauling the tax system — could significantly lift the state from its status as one of the worst places in the nation to raise a kid.

The report, “Enhancing Child Well-Being in New Mexico,” examines nationwide data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2016 Kids Count Data Book and recommends specific legislative actions that would likely lead to improvements in New Mexico’s rankings in 16 measures of child welfare. Kids Count rated the state 49th overall last year.

New Mexico Voices for Children, a nonprofit advocacy group, produced last week’s report with a $20,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

The takeaway, said Amber Wallin, Kids Count state director for New Mexico Voices for Children, is that, “We are not trapped at 49th. … Hope lies through policy improvements.”

The report’s release comes as the state Legislature is considering a number of bills that would achieve many of the goals outlined in the report. However, lawmakers are grappling with a budget crisis, and many of the goals would require an infusion of funding. The report doesn’t provide estimates of those costs.

Wallin cited health care as the state’s one bright spot for kids, particularly a decline in uninsured children and steep drops in teen pregnancies and teen alcohol and drug abuse. The state Health Department also issued a report this week showing that the positive trend has continued, with a further decrease in teen pregnancies, a decline in childhood obesity and a rise in immunizations.

But New Mexico remains last in education, based on student proficiency rates and graduation numbers, and has the highest rate of child poverty in the nation.

It also has the highest rate of poverty among full-time, year-round workers and people with higher education, Wallin said, a troubling symptom of the state’s struggle to recover from the Great Recession.

“We’re being held behind largely because of family economic insecurity,” she said, adding that poverty is closely tied to poor outcomes in education and health.

According to Kids Count, 30 percent of the state’s children were living in poverty in 2014. To move up in the ranking from last to second last, the new report says, the rate would have to drop to 29 percent, moving 690 kids out of poverty. To move to 41st, the state would have to see 15,500 fewer children living in poverty, and to move to first place, nearly 80,000 fewer.

To get more kids out of poverty, the report recommends the state offer child care assistance to families with income levels at 200 percent of the poverty level, rather than 150 percent, where eligibility now stands. It also recommends a higher minimum wage and stronger policies to prevent wage theft, increases in tax credits for low-income families, tougher restrictions on payday loans, assistance for grandparents who are raising their grandchildren and “a more progressive tax system.”

Wallin said New Mexico Voices for Children opposes legislation that would restore a gross receipts tax on food, but it supports a measure to tax internet sales, as well as bills that would create a higher personal income tax rate for those with the highest incomes. The organization also supports mandatory expiration dates for corporate tax credits and tax cuts.

For years, Voices for Children has been a vocal supporter of a plan to draw more money from the state’s multibillion-dollar Land Grant Permanent Fund, which already benefits public education, to dramatically expand early childhood programs. Enrolling 1,100 more kids in preschool would bring the state to 29th in the nation from its current rank of 38th, based on 2014 data, the report says. If New Mexico could enroll 14,400 more children in preschool, it would rise to No. 1.

A measure that would allow the state to tap into the permanent fund revenues is working its way through the Legislature. But Republicans, including Gov. Susana Martinez, and some Democrats have opposed this approach, saying it will drain the public land endowment.

Martinez also has touted the state’s increasing investments in preschool programs.

“Over the years, we have been increasing early childhood education funding,” Wallin said. But, she added, the funding level is still not adequate to cover all children in the state, which should be New Mexico’s goal “given what we know about how important these early years are in terms of development.”

Various studies in recent years show that high-quality preschool programs improve academic performance and high school graduation rates.

With the state working to solve a fiscal crisis and a new presidential administration causing some uncertainty about federal education funding, Wallin said, the permanent fund is the best bet to pay for an expansion of early childhood programs — including child care assistance and home-visiting programs — and even increase K-12 public education funding.

The Trump administration, combined with a Republican majority in both houses of Congress, leaves even more uncertainty about the future of the state’s health care system.

Republicans have vowed to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, a federal law that Wallin said has resulted in many of New Mexico’s health gains: a decline in low birth-weight babies and teen pregnancies, for instance, and a drop in the number of children without insurance.

“We’re very concerned with how the repeal could harm New Mexico,” Wallin said.

Medicaid expansion under the law saw the rate of uninsured New Mexico children fall to 7 percent in 2014, putting the state at 37th in the nation that year. The report projected that the state could rise to 17th in the nation if it enrolled 9,500 more children in health care coverage, bringing the uninsured rate to 5 percent. The state has already surpassed that. According to a Georgetown Health Policy Institute report in October 2016, New Mexico has decreased its rate of uninsured children to 4.5 percent.

That happened through a policy change, Wallin said, and it’s proof positive that the state can make progress.

“We can do this through policy,” she said.

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