by Diana Alba Soular, Las Cruces Sun-News
June 13, 2017

LAS CRUCES – New Mexico ranks 49th in a yearly report, released Tuesday, that looks at overall child well-being. But there have been strides within some indicators.

It’s the fourth year in a row the state has ranked next-to-last, just in front of Mississippi. New Hampshire scored the best overall ranking in 2017. The 2017 KIDS COUNT Data Book looks at 16 indicators of child well-being across four broad categories.

‘Disappointing’ ranking

Audrey Hardman-Hartley, executive director of the Las Cruces-based Jardin de los Niños, which serves homeless children and families, said the continued poor showing by New Mexico is “disappointing.” She believes a more-systematic approach by decision-makers toward determining causes — and solutions — is needed.

“I think the biggest thing is: There is not a person around who is involved in the state of New Mexico that doesn’t want to see us do better,” she said. “The problem is, everybody has ideas. But until we sit down and apply what the medical field does— which is root-cause analysis to the problem — we’re not going to get anywhere.”

Last in education

Among the categories in the report, released by the nonprofit New Mexico Voices for Children and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, New Mexico sits at:

  • 50th in education, which examines factors such as fourth-graders not proficient in reading and high-school students not graduating on time
  • 49th in family and community, indicators for which include teen births and children in single-parent families
  • 48th in economic well-being, which covers indicators like children in poverty and children whose parents lack secure employment
  • 37th in health, which looks at factors including the rates of low-birthweight babies and children without health insurance

Gains in child health

Within the health category, New Mexico improved from 44th to 37th — touted by Voices for Children as a sign of progress.

“We’ve seen really great improvements in measures of health and, as with last year, we can attribute much of that to the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act,” said New Mexico KIDS COUNT Director Amber Wallin in a statement. “This is additional proof that the policies enacted at the state and federal levels really do impact the lives of our children and their families.”

James Jimenez, Kids Count executive director, said more children with access to health insurance means a greater likelihood they’ll have access to “well-baby and well-child checkups, vaccinations, vision and hearing screenings and other preventive care.”

Many children who gained coverage through Medicaid in recent years were eligible for it prior to the Affordable Care Act, also dubbed Obamacare. But their parents either weren’t aware of the program or didn’t know they were eligible for it, said Sharon Kayne, communications director for New Mexico Voices for Children.

Though health insurance rates have improved, experts said they’re also worried about a high child and teen death rate. In all, 34 children died per 100,000 population in New Mexico, compared to 25 nationally.

Improvements possible

While another near-last ranking could discourage some onlookers, Jimenez said there’s reason to be hopeful.

“It would be difficult for us to do this work as child advocates if we didn’t believe there was the possibility for improving the conditions for children in our state,” he said. “We are on one hand dismayed that we are 49th, but on the other hand, we’re excited about the possibilities.”

The gains made in child health, in which New Mexico improved from 49th to 37th in recent years, show that “leap-frog” improvements in the rankings are possible for New Mexico with the right policy changes, Jimenez said.

“It shows we really can improve conditions for children in New Mexico if we put our minds to it and we put our money to it,” he said.

In the new report, New Mexico improved slightly in the child poverty indicator, from 30 percent of children being in poverty last year to 29 percent this year.

Hardman-Hartley said her organization sees the impact of high poverty firsthand. While Jardín has a 90 percent success rate in helping homeless parents gain employment and become financially stable, Hardman-Hartley said her group is just “one little, tiny component of the overall picture.” Children’s fate is dependent upon adults, she noted.

“The whole thing is: The kids don’t make these decisions for themselves,” she said.

Jimenez said his organization will delve deeper into the data to further analyze what it would take to improve. Also, the organization will examine what changes would be needed to become No. 1 in a given category. This helps policymakers target their efforts, he said.

“If we really wanted to change the ranking of ‘young children not in school,’ what would it take to become best in the nation on this?” he said.

Also, the organization is planning to look more closely at specific regions of the state.

Upcoming conference

The fifth annual KIDS COUNT Conference is set to take place June 26 in Albuquerque. Topics will include the new report, as well as possible solutions to problems.

Tickets are $75. 

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