Annual KIDS COUNT Data Book highlights progress, challenges
Commentary: Throughout our state and nation’s history, we’ve sought to create a government that serves everyone well, no matter their race, ethnicity or gender. In many ways, we have been very successful, and we all benefit from the public structures – roads and highways, education, public safety, and more – we have created. But the COVID-19 pandemic has made glaringly obvious the work we still have before us if we are to give our kids and the state an equitable recovery and future.
The challenges of the past two years – continual waves of COVID-19 variants, families struggling to regain economic stability, and students and educators adapting to remote learning, teacher shortages, and quarantines, to name a few – have been enormous. What’s more, the pandemic showed us exactly where the fault lines exist in our public policies. As the 2021 New Mexico KIDS COUNT Data Book shows, those fault lines follow socio-economic, racial, ethnic, and gender differences.
New Mexico’s leaders have taken many actions to protect and support children and families through this uncertainty, including hunger relief funding, emergency economic relief for those left out of federal stimulus payments, a new paid sick leave policy, and an increase and expansion of the Working Families Tax Credit, which will put money in the hands of families who will spend it quickly and locally to provide for their children’s basic needs. These actions, coupled with historic levels of federal relief, prevented us from losing all the progress we’ve been working for to improve well-being for all of our children.
Every year, the data represents a point in the past. Because of pandemic challenges in data collection, most of the data in this year’s report still show us where we were in 2019, but there are several key indicators that shine some light on the impact of COVID-19 on New Mexico’s families. Hardship data collected in 2021 reveal that families in New Mexico are still struggling to pay for usual household expenses, can’t afford enough food for their children, and worry about their ability to make their next rent or mortgage payment on time. These challenges are affecting families of color at a higher rate than white families, as well as at higher rates than the nation as a whole. We also saw that New Mexico families used their expanded, monthly federal Child Tax Credit to pay down debt and cover basic needs like food, clothing, and shelter.
For our regularly tracked KIDS COUNT indicators, we saw that more children were enrolled in Medicaid in 2021, childhood food insecurity rates for 2020 had increased, and the rate of chronic absenteeism in our K-12 schools reached alarming levels, with more than a quarter of students in the state habitually truant. These are difficult, systemically driven problems. We hope to see our Legislature boldly step forward with equitable policy solutions and funding to ensure that our children have healthy food, access to affordable health care, and a high-quality, culturally and linguistically responsive education system that can re-engage and fully support our diverse student body.
Last summer, data collected just prior to the pandemic revealed that child well-being was improving in our state. Continuing in that direction will require bold and significant investments in our kids and the systems and programs that support family well-being. As we enter the 2022 Legislative session, let’s all remember why we show up to this work – for our children, our families, and our communities. This year, we have a unique opportunity to make policy decisions and investments that move us toward not only an equitable recovery, but a more equitable future for generations to come.
Emily Wildau is the KIDS COUNT Coordinator for New Mexico Voices for Children.