COMMENTARY: Every child deserves access to the opportunities that will help them succeed. Unfortunately, too many families in New Mexico lack the resources we all depend upon to raise strong, healthy children.
Most of these parents work, but they may be unable to find full-time, year-round jobs, or they may earn the minimum wage, which, at $7.50 an hour, is nowhere near what it takes to raise a family. Often, their employment options are limited because they didn’t do well in school, so they either did not finish high school or they graduated but went no further.
These are among the primary reasons that New Mexico ranks — yet again — 49th in the nation in terms of child well-being. This KIDS COUNT ranking, proffered each year by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, looks at 16 indicators of child well-being — from economic security to education, health, and factors involving families and communities. New Mexico’s highest-in-the-nation rate of child poverty is the primary reason we rank so low on child well-being.
Almost three in 10 children live in households earning at or below the federal poverty level. That’s just $24,250 for a family of four.
Child poverty, particularly at such high rates, may seem an intractable problem. It’s not, but generational poverty is not something that will just clear up on its own. Children who grow up in poverty generally fall behind their middle- and high-income peers very early in life. Some markers for future success at school can be quantified as early as 18 months of age.
Without intervention and a full range of resources early on, kids who start behind stay behind. Success in education gets farther and farther out of reach the older they get until, eventually, some give up. Perhaps the most insidious aspect of poverty is how it narrows your options and squelches your ability to hope for better.
The good news is that we can break down the barriers that keep families in poverty and rob children of their potential. One of the most effective ways to improve children’s long-term outcomes is to ensure they receive high-quality early care and education services. The earlier we start, the better — even prenatally with home visiting programs that help new parents navigate the exciting and overwhelming task that is childrearing. Early childhood programs can improve many aspects of a child’s life — from lowering rates of child abuse to raising the likelihood they will one day attend college.
These programs are shown to save taxpayer dollars because they circumvent the need for more expensive remediation. But early childhood programs are just one part of the equation.
To truly improve child well-being, we need to help families as a whole. Parents need access to the education and job-training programs that will help them earn the credentials they need to find good-paying jobs. Educating parents is actually a win-win for the state. Improving the educational and skills levels of our workforce will help lure good jobs here. In addition, research shows that educating parents improves the educational outcomes of their children.
Over the past several years, the Legislature has significantly increased funding for early-childhood care and learning services. Funding for those early years still comprises only 2 percent of our state’s budget, and there is still a long way to go before these programs can reach all of the children who would benefit, but it’s a good start. Programs to educate their parents, however, have not been well-funded. Just 5 percent of the adults who qualify for the state’s adult basic education (ABE) program receive it. And just a tiny fraction of those adults are receiving the career pathways program I-BEST, even though it has significantly better completion rates than traditional ABE programs. Consequently, the waiting lists for these programs are long.
Meanwhile, despite a relatively high unemployment rate, there are jobs that are difficult to fill. Called middle-skill jobs, they require at least a high school diploma or some college but not a 4-year degree. New Mexico simply lacks enough qualified workers to fill them. So we are stuck with an abundance of low-skilled workers and a sluggish economy.
New Mexico needs to break down the barriers that keep families in poverty if we are to improve child well-being. That means addressing the educational needs of both our children and their parents. Strong families raise strong children who, in turn, become tomorrow’s parents, leaders, and professionals. When everyone is able to reach their own unique potential and contribute to society, we all win.
Amber Wallin, MPA, is the KIDS COUNT Director with New Mexico Voices for Children.