Pre-pandemic improvement in child well-being a glimpse at what real investments can do
Commentary: All of us take great pride in living in New Mexico, and we can all agree that we want our state to be a place where families choose to raise their children. But we face serious challenges in reaching that goal. After spending the last three years ranked 50th in child well-being, New Mexico has moved up to 49th in the 2021 KIDS COUNT Data Book, recently released by the Annie E Casey Foundation. This improvement does not yet reflect the smart investments made by our policymakers over the last two years, or the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. These significant investments in our kids and families will likely be reflected in data in the coming years, but they are not yet adequate to reach the level of progress our families and children need. Incremental improvements show us both that progress is possible and also that creating the nurturing environments our kids deserve and need to thrive will require bold and sustained actions and investments.
In some areas, we do as well or better than the national average. More New Mexico families are in affordable housing compared to the rest of the nation, and our rate of children without health insurance matches the national rate, largely as a result of the Affordable Care Act and our state’s good policy choices. We also have seen long-term improvements in the rate of people earning high school diplomas, with more high school students graduating on time and a lower percentage of children in families where the household head lacks a high school diploma compared to 2010. Most notable is the tremendous progress we’ve seen in teen birth rates, which have decreased by 55% since 2010. These successes are clear indications of the progress we can make with sustained, focused, and evidence-based interventions.
Despite improvements, the rankings in several indicators still dropped or did not change, which reflects the fact that more progress was made by other states. Similarly, some of our improved rankings were really the result of lost ground in other states – rather than real gains for New Mexico’s children. One area where we continue to fall short is education. The state knows this is a serious issue, but improvement will require a long-term, comprehensive plan, and consistent, adequate funding to ensure students receive the education they deserve. Over the past three years, New Mexico has started investing in our schools in ways that are benefiting our kids, families, and teachers in very real ways, but both the plans and the funding will need to be significant, sustained, and informed by New Mexico communities if we want to see our kids successfully prepared for college or careers.
During the pandemic, New Mexico’s leaders acted quickly to get resources to families and children who needed help, allowing them to survive and likely setting us up to protect our hard-won improvement in the KIDS COUNT rankings. But progress remains slow and we have more ground to make up than do many of the other states. We can see that long-term commitment and investments in our kids are slowly but surely improving some aspects of child well-being in the state. We can stay the course – but if we want to see dramatic and significant improvements, our communities need to ask our leaders and policymakers to take even bolder actions to make New Mexico a place where children and families are safe, successful, and thriving.
Emily Wildau is a Research and Policy Analyst and KIDS COUNT Coordinator for New Mexico Voices for Children, which runs the KIDS COUNT program in New Mexico.