New Mexico, San Juan County continue to lag in child well-being rankings
State ranks last nationally for third time in last seven years
FARMINGTON — It's not easy being a child in New Mexico — especially if you live in San Juan County.
That's according to numbers compiled for the annual KIDS COUNT Data Book released recently by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the future for children at risk of poor educational, economic, social and health outcomes. The group's overall figures across 16 indicators — which date mostly from 2017, the most recent year the data was available — rank New Mexico last for the second time in as many years and the third time since 2013 in child well-being.
The numbers are even worse in San Juan County than they are in New Mexico as a whole for many of those indicators, mostly notably in the rates for poverty, uninsured children, the teen death rate and the teen birth rate.
James Jimenez, the executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, which operates the state's KIDS COUNT program, acknowledged the state's numbers are poor. But he said advocates for children should not give in to despair, despite New Mexico's long history of ranking at or near the bottom of the pack.
"I wouldn't say (I'm) discouraged — disappointed, yes," he said. "You can't be a child advocate and not be optimistic about what's possible for our children and what's possible for our state."
Child advocates cannot afford to resign themselves to acceptance of the state's poor showing, he said.
"That leads to an unwillingness to be big and bold about what we want to see for our children," he said.
It's not all bad news
Jimenez has identified a handful of things to be pleased about in this year's report. The state's child poverty rate decreased from 30 percent last year to 27 percent this year, but that improvement allowed New Mexico to move only from 49th in the country to 48th this year. The U.S. average is 18 percent.
The state's teen birth rate also went from 30 per 1,000 teens last year to 28 this year, but it ranks well behind the national rate of 19 .
The rate of New Mexico children without health insurance is 5 percent, a figure unchanged since last year but equal to the national average. That number is half of what it was in 2012.
New Mexico showed improvement in half of the 16 indicators used in the report that are divided across four domains — economic well-being, education, health, and family and community. Those indicators included children living in poverty, children living in households with a high housing cost burden, young children not in school, fourth-graders not proficient in reading, child and teen death rate per 100,000, teens who abuse alcohol or drugs, children in families where household head lacks high school diploma and teen birth rate per 1,000.
But Jimenez said, generally speaking, the state's progress hasn't kept pace with national progress. That means New Mexico has fallen further behind in many of those areas.
The state lost ground over last year in the rates of teens not in school and not working, eighth-graders not proficient in math, low birth-weight babies, children in single-parent families and children living in high-poverty areas. Its standing remained the same in children whose parents lack secure employment, high school students not graduating on time and children without health insurance.
Jimenez pointed to the fact that the state was able to dramatically improve its national standing over the past several years in the number of children without health insurance as an example of the kind of progress that can be made if substantive efforts are undertaken. He said that improvement is largely due to the state's Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act in 2013.
He also cited the state's rapidly declining teen birth rate over the last eight years. The 2012 figure was 64 per 1,000 teens and was at 28 in the new report. That allowed New Mexico to go from 49th in the country to 44th.
Jimenez said that shows him that when private, public and nonprofit groups decide to focus on a specific issue, they can have a real impact. He believes the same kind of progress could be made in regard to the rate of low birth-weight babies if more women were able to receive first-trimester prenatal care. He believes school-based health services are a relatively low-cost way to provide that.
How it looks locally
The picture in San Juan County is not bright for children. Staff members at New Mexico Voices for Children had to rely on a different set of figures to break down some of the indicators used in the KIDS COUNT report to a county-by-county basis in the state, so they cautioned that direct comparisons were not available in some cases.
But it's clear San Juan County has some work to do. Its overall poverty rate is 23 percent, worse than the state's rate of 20 percent. The child poverty rate is 29 percent, worse than the New Mexico rate of 27 percent.
The county has a higher rate of uninsured children than the state at large at 7.1 percent compared to 5.7 percent, and its teen death rate of 77 deaths per 100,000 15- to 19-year-olds is substantially higher than the 66 deaths statewide.
It also has a teen birth rate of 31.6 per 1,000 teens, while the state's rate is 27.6.
There were a couple of areas where the county fared better than the state. San Juan County had a 7.8 percent rate of low-birthweight babies, compared to 9.5 percent for the state. And the county has a 69 percent rate of women receiving prenatal care in the first trimester, compared to 64 percent for the state.
Jimenez said the teen death rate in San Juan County is particularly concerning to him.
"That calls for a deep look into what is causing San Juan County to have a teen death rate higher than the state as a whole," he said.
He also said that while the county and the state have improved their teen birth rate over the years, the figures for San Juan County are still disconcertingly high.
The relationship between money and child welfare
Progress in many states remains elusive, and New Mexico is not alone in its chronic inability to climb the national rankings in child well-being. The latest KIDS COUNT Data Book shows that states in Appalachia, the South and Southwest are ranked at or near the bottom, including New Mexico's neighbors Arizona, Texas and Oklahoma. The report says those states also rank at the bottom of household income, and Jimenez said the poverty factor is an enormous anchor on efforts to improve child well-being.
"When you begin from a position of a high rate of poverty, it has dampening effects on your efforts," he said.
Jimenez, a former city manager in Rio Rancho, said a lack of investment in education and the work force, as well as failed economic strategies, have a direct effect on a state's outcomes for its children. That's not to say solutions are all tied to economics, he said.
"It's not just about money. It's being smart and making sure your money is used judiciously and wisely," he said.
For instance, he said his organization would like to see the state make a large investment in K-12 education for public schools. But Jimenez said it's important the money is used for the right purposes.
"We want to make sure we are reaching children in a way that's going to increase the likelihood they're going to succeed," he said, adding that a similar investment in public health is needed, but it's crucial that the money be appropriately targeted.
He believes New Mexico's inability to improve its status in child well-being is largely due to a lack of attention to the problems plaguing children and a lack of political will. Yet he sees some signs that New Mexico finally may be willing to change its approach.
Jimenez pointed to the recently reconstituted Children's Cabinet — an entity devoted to studying and making recommendations for the design of programs that will assist the state's children — under Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham as a positive sign. He said the cabinet basically was disbanded under the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez.
"The Legislature can lead, but when the governor says, 'This is important to me,' you get buy-in that is not like what we've had in the last decade or so," Jimenez said.
That renewed attention on children's issues and a ballooning state budget could lead to real change, he said.
"The combination of a new political landscape in New Mexico and the fact that the state finally has some increase in its general fund to address some of these problems causes me to be optimistic about it," he said.
Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or via email at email@example.com.