January 20, 2022

2021 Kids Count Data Book indicates positives but also continued challenges

The advocacy group New Mexico Voices for Children released the 2021 Kids Count Data Book on Wednesday and said that, according to the data, New Mexico saw 20,000 additional children enrolled in Medicaid in 2021.

Emily Wildau, the New Mexico Kids Count Data Book coordinator, said that data was one of the biggest surprises for her to come out of the annual assessment of how New Mexico is doing in terms of how children are doing.

“That was one of the biggest things that really stuck out,” Wildau said.

Every year NMVC releases the Kids Count Data Book that assesses how New Mexico children are faring. Wildau said that this year, because of some data collection challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the data is based on earlier surveys and resources. The organization will provide updates as new survey information becomes available, she said.

Currently, New Mexico ranks 49th in the nation for child wellbeing, but the January Kids Count Data Book does not assess national rankings. The Annie E. Casey Foundation will update those national rankings this summer, Sharon Kayne, communications director for NMVC, said.

But despite the challenges of the pandemic, in many ways, New Mexico’s response to the pandemic has been “a success story,” according to the data book.

Wildau said that before the pandemic, New Mexico was “gaining speed” and “building a great opportunity for kids and families.” Wildau said that New Mexico passed a tax cut that helped 70 percent of families with children. Some of the other improvements for families with children made before the pandemic include the development of the Early Childhood Education and Care Department (ECECD), a minimum wage increase, increased K-12 funding and teacher pay increases and “crucial” COVID-19 relief for families, workers and businesses, Wildau said.

One key piece of new information for 2021 is that hardship data shows that many New Mexico families spent the monthly federal Child Tax Credit money to pay down debt, Wildau said.

That was especially true for Native American and Hispanic families, Wildau said.

She said that could be because Native American and Hispanic families may have had to accrue more debt to contend with economic hardship than white families at the beginning of the pandemic.

But, in the first few months of receiving the federal Child Tax Credit, she said “a significant number of families spent the money on food, clothing and shelter, but over time they may have shifted to paying down debt.”

But, despite the gains, the data showed that child food insecurity increased from 24 percent in 2020 to 26 percent in 2021 in New Mexico, Wildau said.

“It is likely that federal, state and local economic relief prevented a much more dramatic increase in child hunger,” Wildau said.

Wildau said that the increase in Medicaid coverage for New Mexico children is likely due to job losses leading to a loss of private-employer insurance.

Amber Wallin, executive director of NMVC, said New Mexico legislators should continue to enact legislation that will positively impact families and children, particularly families of color.

“During this Legislative session we’re continuing to focus on public policy to provide robust safety net support, especially in direct economic assistance for families who need it the most, especially for low-income front line workers, refugee and immigrant families unable to access key forms of relief,” she said.

Wallin said other areas of public policy where lawmakers should focus on to help families with children and provide equitable relief for communities of color include “strategic investment in food insecurity,” continuing to “invest in early childhood education” and support of the Early Childhood Trust Fund, which augments federal funding for prenatal-to-five-year-old services and provides the state’s annual appropriation for the ECECD.

Wallin said she also would like to see the state’s Medicaid program expand to support postpartum care for new mothers up to 12 months. The New Mexico State Human Services Department is working on establishing that extension and hopes to have it in place by April 1.

Related: Medicaid coverage could be extended to 12 months for postpartum care

Wallin said NMCV would also like to see “fully funded and supported classrooms” and that passing “really good tax policy” is crucial to ensure children of color have an equitable opportunity to participate in the state’s recovery from the pandemic.

She said this means “not rushing to give away permanent tax cuts.”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced in her State of the State address on Tuesday that she hopes to see legislation that will provide tax cuts. She has proposed to cut the Gross Receipts Tax (GRT), often referred to as a sales tax, by 0.25 percent, which would put the state-wide rate at 4.875.

Another policy initiative Wildau mentioned is internet connectivity and language access. Wildau said that according to NMVC research, communities face barriers due to language access issues in the immigrant community and for children of color.

“Broadband access will [also] be key to improving key indicators,” Wildau said.