New Mexico Ranked Worst in the Nation for Child Poverty

Amber Wallin, Kids Count Director for NM Voices for Children. Courtesy Photo taken by Staff at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Child poverty affects New Mexico more than any other state. While the share of children living in poverty in the U.S. decreased one percent from 2015 to 2016, New Mexico experienced a one percent increase from 2016 to 2017, putting the state’s child poverty at 30 percent — an increase of over 4,000 children.

Child Poverty levels in New Mexico versus the national average.
Source: US Census American Community Survey 1-Year data from 2005 to 2016 (2016 data released in September, 2017)

The  report released this September by the U.S. Census officially ranks New Mexico as the worst state in the nation for child poverty, beating out Mississippi which improved falling to 29.7 percent.

Among New Mexico children under five years old, the rate was even worse — increasing by four percent (32% in 2015 to 36% in 2016), while the national rate dropped from 23 to 21 percent.

The new data also displays significant racial disparities when it comes to state poverty. Poverty among white, non-Hispanic children is significantly better than poverty among Hispanics and Native Americans.The official state poverty rates by ethnicity are: 12% White; 24% Hispanic; 32% Native American; and 17% African American.

Paul Gessing, President of the conservative-leaning Rio Grande Foundation, said that New Mexico provides  numerous services to lower income families, similar to most states. However, poverty is consequently linked to the state’s poor economy.

“Ostensibly, the State of New Mexico is spending billions of dollars each year to combat child poverty, including Medicaid, CHIP, school lunches, Pre-K, and programs administered in conjunction with the federal government like SNAP, WIC, and Head Start,” Gessing said. “Unfortunately, the best way to reduce child poverty is through a strong growing state economy and on that mark, New Mexico’s Legislature has been an abject failure.”

New Mexico received $5.4 billion in Medicaid in 2016. The law requires the state to cover preschool children to at least 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

Advocates for children see a variety of underlying causes exacerbating New Mexico’s poverty rate.

Amber Wallin, Kids Count Director for NM Voices for Children. Courtesy Photo taken by Staff at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“Poverty is a multidimensional issue,” said Amber Wallin, Kids Count Director for NM Voices for Children.

The list, according to Wallin,  include economic inequality, high rates of working poor, high unemployment rates lack of funding for early childhood education, and lack of funding for higher education. And those are just a few of the underlying issues, Wallin said.

“Families are struggling to find work — 42 percent of New Mexicans to be exact. And even when they do find work, it doesn’t pay very well,” Wallin said. Roughly 67 percent of jobs in New Mexico pay less than $12 an hour, which helps explain why some families are living below the poverty line despite having at least one breadwinner.

New Mexico also has low rates of educational attainment; 18 percent of children in New Mexico live in families that lack a high-school diploma. New Mexico families lack the financial means to educate themselves, Wallin said.

“We are spending 11 percent less per person than we were before the Great Recession. Since then, we have cut K-12 education and higher education spending by 30 percent,” Wallin said.“New Mexico has cut programs that help support people to become educated and earn higher paying jobs.”

Since 2010, New Mexico cut enrollment in childcare systems by 27 percent leaving families with limited childcare options, according to Wallin. On average, childcare costs are higher than the in-state college tuition rate.

“We are investing less in our people,” Wallin said.

In addition, the New Mexico tax system is another underlying cause that has contributed to the high rates of child poverty throughout the state, Wallin said.

“The New Mexico tax system asks the most of those who can afford it the least.”

According to Wallin, percentage-wise, lower wage earners are  paying more than the higher earners in state and local income taxes, property taxes, and sales taxes. The poorer groups are paying up to 11 percent of their total income, whereas those in the top one percent pay less than 5 percent of their income in taxes.

According to Growing Up Poor: Examining the Link Between Persistent Childhood Poverty and Delinquency in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology, the connection between poverty and crime is equally as strong today as it has been in the past. This correlation starts at a young age, and often times can have a direct reflection on the home life of these children who are living in poverty.

Child poverty rates not only affect New Mexico families, but also New Mexico educators. Children in poverty face challenges outside the school system, and teachers are left dealing with all of these effects of children in poverty. Children enter the classroom unprepared to learn, and don’t have the support system that they need outside of the classroom. Educators are then not provided with all of the staff and people necessary to help these students get the kind of resources that they need.

“It was easy to tell which students in my classroom were struggling at home. Sometimes they would come to school wearing the same dirty clothes for days on end, lacking proper hygiene, and hungry.” DeAnna Sherred, a former 2nd grade teacher at Griegos Elementary said.

“At that point, being a teacher takes a backseat role, and being a mom is in its full effect.” Sherred said. “As a teacher, when students don’t have a good home life, and are struggling to keep up in school, you have to slow down your curriculum to accommodate those students who are not up-to-par with the rest of the class.”

“Because of tax credits to large corporations and high-income earners, we don’t have a lot of money in the budget to increase programs to help children and families.” Wallin said.

“Increasing taxes on the wealthy, and increasing taxes on multi state corporations is just one way that New Mexico can help pull themselves out of this hole. Our tax system should be more fair to generate more revenue and to put NM families in a better position to succeed.” Wallin said.

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