Report: Progress on child well-being derailed by pandemic

·3 min read

Jan. 22—An annual report on the well-being of New Mexico's children — often ranked among the worst in the nation — has found the state's efforts to make progress were derailed by pandemic-era hardships.

The coronavirus pandemic also created disruptions in data collection, leaving large gaps in the details of how kids in the state are faring, the report says.

The nonprofit New Mexico Voices for Children released its 2021 New Mexico Kids Count Data Book earlier this week. The report, based on 2020 data, shows a rise in food insecurity among children and a decline in health insurance coverage, troubling signs for the state.

"Although 2020 data are limited, we are able to see that the pandemic has led to increases in childhood food insecurity, greater numbers of children enrolled in Medicaid, and significantly higher numbers of chronically absent students," said Emily Wildau, Kids Count coordinator for New Mexico Voices for Children, in a news release issued this week.

Much of the data included in Kids Count was compiled nationally by the Annie E. Casey Foundation from the American Community Survey. It saw such low response rates in 2020, the report could not provide an ethnic breakdown of the measures. It doesn't include specific data on Black or Asian families in New Mexico and lumps Native Americans into a broader ethnic category.

Still, advocates say it provides evidence state lawmakers must continue to fund initiatives that support families and kids: Medicaid expansions, direct economic relief, increases in early childhood education and aid for strained food banks.

"The story is one of challenge and struggle, especially for communities of color and low-income families of children in our state," New Mexico Voices for Children Executive Director Amber Wallin said at a news conference this week. "But it's also one of promise and potential."

Wildau said ethnic minorities in New Mexico were more dramatically affected by COVID-19 and likely had to take on more debt to stay afloat before the federal government expanded its child tax credit program in July.

The expansion, which paid millions of families nationwide hundreds of dollars per child, ended this month.

Data shows 49 percent of New Mexico's Hispanic families and 40 percent of families in a category titled "two or more races/other race" — which includes Native Americans — used the money to pay off debt.

That compares with 32 percent of non-Hispanic white families.

While 8 percent of white families expressed concerns about covering their housing costs, the rate was 27 percent for Hispanic families and 24 percent for Native Americans and other ethnic groups.

The number of children living below the poverty line in New Mexico has steadily declined since 2017, falling below 25 percent in 2020, but Wildau warned that may be inaccurate due to low survey response rates.

Kids Count reports 26 percent of New Mexico's children experienced food insecurity in 2020 — 2 percentage points higher than in 2018 — compared with 20 percent of kids across the United States.

And while 17 percent of U.S. households with kids received federal food aid in 2020, 28 percent of those in New Mexico did.

"It's likely federal and state and local economic relief prevented a much more dramatic increase in child hunger," Wildau said.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham recently recommended lawmakers allocate $14.4 million to the state Department of Finance and Administration for food bank support and other hunger relief initiatives — a proposal Wildau called "good news."

Wallin also is pushing lawmakers to support a Medicaid expansion to provide more postpartum coverage for new mothers.

New Mexico Voices for Children noted a growing number of kids in New Mexico are relying on the jointly funded federal and state health care program. Between 2019 and 2021, 40,000 more New Mexico children were enrolled in Medicaid, and 7,000 of them were Native American, according to Kids Count.

"As families have lost jobs and employer-sponsored health insurance since the start of the pandemic, a significant number of children have become newly eligible and enrolled in Medicaid," Wildau said.