New Mexico against last in Kids Count report but state advocate sees progress

Jun. 14—It's official: New Mexico will spend another year at the bottom of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's 2023 Kids Count Data Book's child well-being rankings.

For the fourth time in five years, the state ranked 50th nationwide in the data set, an amalgamation of economic well-being, health, education and family demographic data released Wednesday from all 50 states.

Despite the state's poor showing, Amber Wallin, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children — the statewide children's advocacy organization which collects Kids Count data each year — isn't too concerned about New Mexico's 50th place spot. Rather, she said, she's focused on New Mexico's improvements compared to the New Mexico of a decade ago, a comparison she said shows some progress.

"The thing about the rankings is that they're only one small part of the story about child well-being and about opportunity. ... They don't tell us about where we've been as a state, how far we've come or where we should be going," Wallin said.

This year's Kids Count figures tell a troubling — and familiar — story of New Mexico. About a quarter of New Mexico children live in poverty, a figure that equates to 111,000 kids. Most New Mexican youth aren't proficient in core subject areas, with 79% of fourth graders not proficient in reading and 87% of eighth graders not proficient in math. And 23% of high school students don't graduate on time.

Notably, much of this year's report is based on data from 2021, when children and families were experiencing some of the most challenging impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, from joblessness to online schooling.

Across the U.S., the figures show the results of the insufficient and expensive child care system, which limits children's early learning, challenges families and pushes people — largely women — out of the workforce altogether, Lisa Hamilton, president and CEO of the Casey Foundation, said in a news release announcing the new data book.

"A good child care sys­tem is essen­tial for kids to thrive and our econ­o­my to pros­per. But our cur­rent approach fails kids, par­ents and child care work­ers by every mea­sure," Hamil­ton said.

Despite this grim picture and New Mexico's spot at the bottom of the pack, Wallin said, "We're making remarkable progress."

That progress appears when comparing New Mexico to its past self, Wallin said, rather than 49 other states with distinct histories and circumstances.

Some indicators have gotten worse in the past decade. New Mexico's eighth grade math proficiency rates, for instance, have worsened by 9% since 2009. The number of low birth-weight babies and child and teen death rates have both increased since 2010, the data shows.

But many indicators, Wallin said, have improved. Since 2010, child poverty in the state has seen a 20% decrease, she said, while the share of high school students not graduating on time has improved by 38%. Meanwhile, the percentage of children without health insurance has improved by 45% and teen birth rates have improved by 64%.

Wallin said she's also confident New Mexico's recent investments in early childhood education — including the expansion of the state's child care assistance and pre-K programs — will continue this progress.

Those changes will start to improve New Mexico's standing, Wallin said, but it will take time.

"We know that we have big challenges when it comes to child and family well-being and creating opportunity. Those are things that are not quick and easy to address," Wallin said.

"I think it's really key that we keep our eye on the long-term. ... We want to be thinking about, 'How are we laying groundwork for our kids now and five, 10, 20 years into the future?' " she added. "I think that's where the state is really making transformational investments that we're starting to see pay off."