Today marked the start of the legislative session and Celebrating Children and Youth Day at the Roundhouse.
In 2013, New Mexico dropped to dead last in the national Kids Count ranking for child well-being. Kids delivered biscochitos to legislators with the message "Don't Sugarcoat It. We're 50th." New Mexico was No. 49 in 2012, with Mississippi in last place.
Veronica García, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, said the flip wasn't about what New Mexico is doing wrong but what Mississippi started doing right last year. "Mississippi increased the number of children enrolled in pre-K," she said.
That's among Voices for Children's priorities during the 30-day legislative session. The organization is supporting Senate Joint Resolution 12, which asks for one-and-a-half percent more of the land grant fund to go to early childhood education. "Sixty-two percent of our children are not attending pre-school," she said. "That's why passing that Constitutional amendment to find a sustainable source of revenue would make a tremendous difference."
The group is pushing for a raise in the minimum wage for hourly and tipped employees, and tying the wage to inflation, though García said Voices for Children isn't specifying what that raise should be. "This would impact particularly children in single-parent families who are struggling to make ends meet," she said. "When families are struggling it puts toxic stress into the family situation that impacts brain development and children's performance."
Both the minimum wage and permanent early childhood education funding would go before voters if passed by the Legislature.
New Mexico Voices for Children is also asking that public education funding to return to pre-recession levels, and for more school-based health clinics. The public education system does not need more specialized programs "when we have children in overcrowded classrooms lacking materials and textbooks," García said.
The state's bottom position in national lists is based on 16 indicators. García listed a few:
• 31 percent of New Mexico's children live in poverty
• 8.7 percent of babies are born with low birth weights
• 9 percent of teens abuse alcohol and drugs
• 9 percent of children don't have health insurance
Of the 47,000 kids without health insurance, 45,000 are eligible for Medicaid but not receiving services, García added. "We need to make sure that the Human Services Division is making strong efforts to reach out, to recruit, to get children into these programs and to make it easy for them to access these services."
Overall, when analyzing trends, Voices for Children wants to keep an eye on the state's statistics over time—not just on where we land on national lists. Our rankings could improve nationally if other states begin doing worse, even though the situation for our children would remain the same. "We want to create a baseline and follow trends of child well-being in New Mexico," García said.
Garcia said lawmakers have to stop paying only lip service to these issues. "The return on investment will be a boon to our economy and the quality of life for all New Mexicans," she said. "It's important for New Mexicans to recognize that we are in a crisis."