- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 21, 2014

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - As the state Legislature begins its 30-day budget session, advocates are going to be pushing hard to improve the well-being of New Mexico’s children through a series of education initiatives and other efforts aimed at pulling families out of poverty.

New Mexico Voices for Children is releasing its annual Kids Count in New Mexico report at the state Capitol on Tuesday in hopes of getting the attention of lawmakers.

The report places New Mexico last among states when it comes to child well-being - the same place the state finished in the national Kids Count report released last summer.

Advocates contend child well-being has reached a crisis level, saying state leaders can’t waste any more time putting off the problem. One of the keys, they say, will be finding more permanent funding to boost the state’s early childhood education programs.

“The thing to understand is that so much of education, health and economic security are so interrelated,” said Chris Hollis, the group’s Kids Count director. “We know very well that if you can possibly increase the education attainment of young people, that, in the long run, should have a positive effect on getting rid of poverty in their lives.”

According to the report, nearly one-third of the state’s children live in poverty, 60 percent live in low-income families and about 37 percent have parents who lack secure employment. The statistics in New Mexico are far above the national average.

Guadalupe and Luna counties have the most children living in poverty, with 50 percent, according to the report.

When it comes to parents having secure employment, Los Alamos and the oil and gas producing counties of Eddy and Lea top the list. Luna, Mora, Quay, Guadalupe, Catron and Sierra counties round out the bottom.

The report states that growing up in poverty is one of the largest threats to a child’s healthy development.

New Mexico Voices for Children contends the state has offered only a piecemeal approach over the years, which has resulted in New Mexico consistently being ranked near the bottom.

The report makes some suggestions, including raising the minimum wage, which would help an estimated 20 percent of New Mexico children; increasing tax credits for working families; protecting funding for nutrition programs that more than 40 percent of New Mexico children rely on; and tapping the Land Grant Permanent Fund to pay for early childhood education.

While there’s no specific dollar figure, some have estimated hundreds of millions of dollars would be needed. However, some lawmakers have reservations about dipping into the permanent fund.

New Mexico Voices for Children also argues that offering quality early education programs would benefit the state’s Hispanic and Native American students, who typically struggle when it comes to academic achievement.

“Dropping to 50th in the nation, it’s an opportunity to really push this in a concert way,” said Sharon Kayne, a spokeswoman for the group. “If we can’t address child well-being when we’re dead last in the nation, when can we?”

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