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New report shows NM kids' well-being lags the rest of the nation

Grant Barrett
New Mexico Ranked 50th in the US in childhood well-being

New Mexico has improved in key areas of child well-being but our state is still at the bottom. That’s according to the new Kids Count Data Book for 2022. While much of the information was collected before the pandemic it does measure the impact of COVID on anxiety and depression among kids. KUNM spoke with Amber Wallin, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children which released the report this week.

AMBER WALLIN: Unfortunately, this year's Kids Count Data Book shows that we are ranked 50th overall in child well-being amongst the states. And so what we also see is that COVID setbacks really hampered progress that we've seen in a number of indicators. But the other thing that I'd lift up is when you look a little bit deeper into the data, you would also see that we have seen progress in most of the indicators measured, and that there are really reasons to hope that there's a brighter path ahead for New Mexico's kids.

KUNM: You're measuring economic well-being, education, health, and family and community. What sorts of factors make up those categories?

WALLIN: Within each of those four, what we call domains, there's four indicators to reflect what kind of opportunities kids have to thrive. And so for example, in the "economic" domain, you'll see children in poverty as a measurement. In the "education" domain there's things like high school students graduating on time, young children in preschool. In "health," these are things like children without health insurance, child and teen death rates. And then in that broad "family and community" category, we have children and families where the household head lacks a high school diploma and children living in high poverty areas.

KUNM: Are you able to share what the data gathering process was like?

WALLIN: For the first time the data is not as recent as it otherwise normally would have been, and that's because of COVID. What's important to note about this year's data and this year's ranking, is that it is based almost wholly on data either from 2020 or prior to 2020. And so that's important because that doesn't reflect any of the policy improvements that we've seen in the last three years or a lot of the changes that families faced as a result of COVID.

KUNM: In education, we were ranked number 50.

WALLIN: Sometimes when you hear that 50th number, it's easy to get stuck on it and it's easy to feel hopeless. But one of the things when you look a little closer in the data that you would see is that we have a bright spot in the education domain. Young children attending preschool, we're ranked 27th in the nation. And so that's reflective of the fact of the investments that we've made over time in early childhood education in New Mexico. We really are now leading the nation in some of the policies that we're passing in the past couple of years. Sometimes even in domain areas where we're ranked poorly, we still see progress. So for example, we're ranked 50th in the nation in young people graduating high school on time, but when you look at what that data looks like over the years, in 2011 37% of our high schoolers were not graduating on time. Now that's down to 25%.

KUNM: I understand there were some new measurements this year for anxiety and depression. What were those findings?

WALLIN: COVID-19 has been particularly hard on children and on teens' mental health across the states, with a lot of young folks struggling with anxiety and depression and we know that that can have carryover effects to a lot of different areas of our kids lives. About 12% of children across the states were more likely to encounter anxiety and depression during that first year of the COVID crisis, which is a big increase. Now, New Mexico's numbers also increased over COVID. Our figure jumped about 13%. So this represents about 7,000 more New Mexico kids who are struggling with different mental health challenges.

KUNM: Now are there bright spots that we haven't mentioned?

WALLIN: When kids are living in poverty they're facing a host of other challenges in their life. That can impact their educational well-being, it impacts food security, so all across the board that can make a difference. And you know, we're ranked 48th and children living in poverty but one thing that I would lift up — 20,000 fewer kids are living in poverty now than there were in 2012. And the other thing that I'd lift up is that in the past three years New Mexico policymakers have passed a lot of policy directed towards improving economic well-being for families with kids in our state. Things like a new state level Child Tax Credit, more than doubling a tax credit that goes to working parents, greatly expanding access to child care assistance. We've seen a lot of policy change that is not yet reflected in the data, but that we expect will make a big difference for New Mexico's kids and families.

Voters in November will see a question on their ballots about designating about $250 million a year from the Land Grant Permanent Fund to early childhood education and public education for kids.
This report is part of our Your New Mexico Government project, a collaboration between KUNM radio and New Mexico PBS. Support for public media provided by the Thornburg Foundation.

Kaveh Mowahed is a reporter with KUNM who follows government, public health and housing. Send story ideas to kaveh@kunm.org.
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