The Worst (and Best) States for Children's Health and Education
By Robert Nott
For the first time in five years, New Mexico has fallen to last among states when it comes to the economic, educational and medical well-being of its children, according to a nonprofit that tracks the status of U.S. kids.
Perhaps most troubling in the 2018 Kids Count Data Book, set for public release Wednesday by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, is New Mexico's steep drop in ranking for health care measures -- previously a bright spot for the state.
New Mexico steadily decreased its number of uninsured children between 2010 and 2015, to 4 percent from 10 percent, the Casey Foundation reported. But in 2016, that figure edged up to 5 percent, the 2018 report says.
That change, as well as an increase in the rate of teens who reported abusing drugs or alcohol, helped push the state from 37th in 2017 to 48th this year in health, one of four categories in which states are ranked in the Kids Count report (though the report notes a change in the data-reporting methodology on teen drug and alcohol use make year-over-year results difficult to compare).
Overall, Kids Count -- which analyzes data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- paints New Mexico as a dire place to be a child.
That's not a new assessment. The Casey Foundation has ranked the state either 49th or 50th throughout Gov. Susana Martinez's administration, a slight decline from the administration of her predecessor, Gov. Bill Richardson, when the state ranked between 43rd and 48th in the report.
"The data says to me that the policy approach that we have taken over the last eight to 10 years has not been working," said James Jimenez, executive director of the Albuquerque-based advocacy group New Mexico Voices for Children, which works closely with the Casey Foundation.
"It says that we really don't have much of a commitment to improving the lives of children," Jimenez added.
According to the 2018 Kids Count Data Book, 30 percent of New Mexico's children were living in poverty in 2016, compared to 19 percent nationwide that year, the earliest figures available.
In educational measures, the report says 75 percent of the state's fourth-graders were not proficient in reading in 2017, compared to 65 percent nationally, and 80 percent of eighth-graders were not performing up to par in math in 2017, compared to 67 percent across the U.S.
Even in areas where the needle has moved up slightly in New Mexico since last year's report, data show the state is still faring far worse than others. For example, while the teen birth rate has improved here, dropping in 2016 to 30 births for mothers age 15-19 per 1,000 births overall from 35 per 1,000 in 2015, the rate remains much higher than the national average of 20 per 1,000.
The report does not delve deeply into the reasons behind the data, Jimenez said, which means "it still doesn't tell the full story of the complex lives that New Mexico's children are experiencing."
But, he said, the data should serve as a "call to action" to the state's next governor.
Members of the public and media should be asking both gubernatorial candidates -- Republican Steve Pearce, a congressman from Hobbs, and Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham, a congresswoman from Albuquerque -- to outline their agenda for improving the lives of children in New Mexico, he said.
Pearce and Lujan Grisham appeared at a New Mexico Voices for Children conference on child well-being Monday in Albuquerque, where both pledged to do more to help the state's children and improve the public education system.
Jimenez said Voices for Children will ensure the candidates, along with all of New Mexico's lawmakers, will receive a copy of this week's Kids Count Data Book.
The report echoes many concerns noted in previous reports by Voices for Children and other organizations.
Education Week's annual Quality Counts report on public education systems throughout the nation put New Mexico next to last out of 50 states and the District of Columbia in January. That same month, personal finance website WalletHub ranked New Mexico as the worst state to raise a kid. In June 2017, the child care website Care.com released a health data study that said New Mexico was the worst place to raise healthy kids.
Since the Annie E. Casey Foundation began compiling the report in 1990, New Mexico has never ranked higher than 40th in the report (in 1995) and has often ranked between 45th and 50th. It last ranked 50th in 2013 and was 49th from 2014-17.
New Hampshire ranked first in the Kids Count report, followed by Massachusetts, New Jersey, Minnesota and Iowa.
At the low end, Louisiana ranked just above New Mexico at 49, Mississippi 48, Nevada 47 and Alaska 46.
The report raises some concerns about whether the U.S. Census Bureau accurately counts all children in each state, saying the 2010 census report failed to include almost 1 million children under the age of 5.
Because census data helps draw federal funding, the report says, "when kids aren't counted, communities don't get their fair share of federal dollars for Head Start, school lunches, public health insurance, housing, child care and myriad other programs."
The undercounting may due to a variety of factors, such as families becoming more mobile and because many families live in poverty or are headed by young adults without high school diplomas, the report says.
"Response rates to government surveys in general have declined," it says, "because of increased concerns about privacy, confidentiality and identity theft. Immigrant families with undocumented members are sometimes reluctant to respond out of fear."
(c)2018 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)