New Mexico's children continue to be among the most impoverished in the nation, but fixing the trend will require a multigenerational approach that takes more into account than school test scores and teen birth rates.
The state ranked 49th again this year in the Annie E Casey Foundation's annual Kids Count Data Book, with 31 percent of children living at or below the poverty level, an increase since the previous year. While the state has seen some modest gains in areas of parents securely employed, high school students graduating on time, children and teen death rates, and teen alcohol and drug abuse, the bottom line is, the numbers aren't moving much.
New Mexico has remained in the report's bottom fifth of all states for the last decade and has hovered at 49th or 50th since 2012. Changes in the percentage of children who were without health insurance or were not proficient readers have been within a few points. National data shows the story is similar across the country: Incomes have stagnated for middle- and working-class families, and personal wealth—savings, home equity, stocks and bonds—is accruing to the top 1 percent. Having those assets can decrease parent stress and enable them to invest in their children's education, which correlates to students succeeding in elementary school and going on to attend college. By the time children from low-income families start kindergarten, more than half of them are already behind their peers.
The cycle self-perpetuates, and 42 percent of low-income children land as adults in the same income bracket as their parents. And about 1.7 million more children in America live in low-income working families now than did during the recession, the 2015 Data Book reported.
While early childhood education programs are key, research suggests that alleviating poverty involves both parents and children. The Casey Foundation now promotes a model that also includes job training and home-visit programs to give parents a step up in their employment and provide some coaching on financial planning, healthy habits and parenting practices.
"Children don't exist in a vacuum. They are in families, and they are dependent on those families for nurturing, for shelter, for food, and as their first teachers," says Veronica C García, executive director of local Kids Count affiliate New Mexico Voices for Children.
Economic research shows the best investment for turning the economy around is in early childhood education.
"The earlier we can intervene, the better chance we have of breaking the cycle of poverty and increasing the economic prosperity of our state," García tells SFR.
That can mean teaching parents to use opportunities like singing or talking to their children as a chance to teach them more vocabulary, fueling better reading skills down the line.
But less discussed is the proof that also reaching parents with education and training programs, preferably paired with high-quality child care options that increase their income, as well as even health care and mental health services to keep the entire family in better health, can go a long way toward putting children on the right track.
Programs that provide home visits with nurses or other trained staff to provide infant check-ups and parent coaching can also jump-start childhood development and increase maternal and infant health. The Virginia Comprehensive Health Investment Project, for example, coaches parents on building routines, suggests developing healthy habits and even aids families with self-sufficiency fundamentals like a driver's license and long-term goals like completing a GED or pursuing higher education.
"If parents can be taught some of these things while also providing them support, we're going to mitigate some of that toxic stress, we're going to mitigate adverse childhood experiences that we know from the research affects childhood brain development," García says.
The changes may not require additional spending, just adjusting existing approaches. State agencies can also coordinate efforts—as an example, in South Carolina, SNAP eligibility information is used for automatic enrollment in the state's Children's Health Insurance Program.
In New Mexico, so far, integrated, two-generation approaches are still few and far between.
Santa Fe Reporter