January 20, 2023

Mixed results from annual Kids Count Data Book

The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse Wikicommons.

The results from the 2022 Kids Count Data Book, released this week by the nonprofit New Mexico Voices for Children, are mixed, the group’s  executive director, Amber Wallin, said.

NMVC releases the Kids Count Data Book annually at the start of the Legislative session to provide policy makers with information and statistics on how New Mexico’s children and families are doing on four fronts: educationally, economically, health and family and community. Data gathering for the data book was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and that problem continues, with some data reflecting pre-pandemic conditions, Wallin said during a press conference this week. Some of the data reflects averages from the years 2016 to 2020, she said.

One of the most striking deficits the 2022 data book reveals is child hunger. For about a month in 2022, a U.S. Census Bureau survey found that 35 percent of New Mexico families with children were not eating enough because food was not affordable.

Within the U.S., that rate was 29 percent, the data found.

Structural, systemic racism plays a role in the data because “equality of opportunity is not something that just happens,” Wallin said.

According to the data, 39 percent of Hispanic households were not eating enough because of the cost of groceries while 22 percent of white families reported the same problem.

New Mexico also has a higher average of families relying on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program at 21 percent than the national average of 12 percent.

Food insecurity can lead to health problems, such as diabetes and obesity, later on in life, according to the data book.

Areas where New Mexico has seen some improvements include the state’s teen birth rate which has improved by 58 percent over the last decade, Emily Wildau, NMVC research and policy analyst, said. But the state remains higher than the national average on teen birth rate, ranking as 41 out of 50 states for a high teen birth rate.

New Mexico continues to sit last in the U.S. for reading and math proficiency but the rates of those proficiencies over the long term have improved at a higher rate when compared to the U.S. rates, Wildau said.

“It’s not as high as we’d like but we have seen improvements. And the number of improvements are stronger over the long term than the U.S. as a whole,” Wildau said.

COVID-19 also had an impact. According to the data book, 75 percent of New Mexico children scored below proficient in reading in 2017, but in 2022, 79 percent of New Mexico children scored below reading proficiency.

Wildau also highlighted that New Mexico is improving at a better rate when compared to the national average, with 7 percent fewer young children not enrolled in school when compared to the national average of 2 percent fewer young children not enrolled in school.

Wallin highlighted some of NMVC policy recommendations, including increasing the Child Tax Credit for low-income families and making it a permanent fixture of state policy. Wallin said the federal Child Tax Credit lifted 38,000 children out of poverty during its implementation in 2021.

“We would have seen bigger back slides for families if not for that federal relief,” Wallin said.

Another policy recommendation is for the state to diversify its economy and rely less on oil and gas revenue.

“Every few years we see an oil boom and bust,” Wallin said, adding that this has, historically, influenced policy makers in how they plan the state budget.

Other policy recommendations include a universal free meal program and expanding School-based Health Centers.

“All of this work depends on passing tax policy. Diversifying our revenue, pulling in more revenue from the wealthiest individuals in the state who are doing better than they were before the pandemic. Recurring tax credits focused on families as we look to build recovery and long-term progress,” she said.

Wallin said that the state has made real strides in recent policy changes, such as expanding the distribution from the Land Grant Permanent Fund, expanding early childhood education and establishing Paid Sick Leave as a statewide policy. She said this establishes a good “foundation” for improvements, but that the changes will likely be incremental and New Mexico won’t see the results for years and, in some cases, will be “generational” change.

Wallin also said NMVC is “really optimistic” about recent changes that have taken place in the state House chamber, referencing the recent election of House Speaker Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, to lead the House. She said he expanded a tax credit low-income rebate for families. She also named Martinez’s appointment of state Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, to chair the House Appropriation and Finance Committee as part of the recent changes NMVC views as “building on progress and a real strong focus on kids and families.” 

“Having known him for many years when I worked for the city of Las Cruces, he is really intelligent and data driven,” Wallin said.