- Associated Press - Monday, April 14, 2014

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - New Mexico may be the worst in the nation when it comes to child well-being, but U.S. Sen. Tom Udall on Monday said raising the minimum wage and providing unemployment insurance to those parents who have been without jobs the longest could make an immediate difference in the lives of children.

“Extra dollars to families really make a difference,” Udall said.

The New Mexico Democrat hosted a round table discussion with children’s advocates, business leaders and others to address the state’s dismal rankings. His goal is to identify steps that can be taken at the federal level to lift children and families out of poverty and to boost opportunities for children to succeed.

Udall acknowledged that improving child well-being is a concern that transcends New Mexico’s borders. He said too many children in the U.S. are being “neglected, left behind and lost.”

The discussion comes as New Mexico embarks on a series of major reforms to keep abused and neglected children from falling through the cracks. Providing safe environments for children was one of the factors discussed by experts at the meeting.

Other issues included challenges faced by minority populations, access to early childhood education and health care, and poverty.

In New Mexico, the most recent annual Kids Count report shows nearly one-third of children live in poverty and 60 percent live in low-income families. About 37 percent have parents who lack secure employment.

New Mexico also ranks high when it comes to the number of children who are living in single-parent homes.

“We’re going to get to the root of it and then have a piece of legislation that tackles it at every level,” Udall said. “I think a clear part of it is early childhood education and supporting families.”

Officials with New Mexico Voices for Children were among those participating in Monday’s discussion. The organization has been pushing a broad agenda to address the state’s rankings, including raising the minimum wage and greater investments in early childhood education.

Veronica Garcia, the group’s executive director, said the main factor that put New Mexico at the bottom of the list in 2013 was the number of children not attending preschool, which was around 62 percent.