- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 13, 2017

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Three Southwestern states are ranked near the bottom when it comes to child well-being, with New Mexico the lowest among its neighbors.

The annual Kids Count report released Tuesday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation ranks New Mexico 49th, ahead of only Mississippi. Louisiana, Nevada and Arizona fill in the rest of the five lowest rankings.

The report considers numerous measures such as poverty rates, reading proficiency and teen birth rates, and the map of 2017 rankings show clear regional patterns where states in the northeastern part of the country are leading the way. Meanwhile, the 18 lowest ranking states - many of which have low levels of household income - were in the Southwest and southeastern regions.

New Mexico, a state that historically has among the highest poverty rates, has struggled for years to move up in the Kids Count rankings.

Still, advocates have found reason to celebrate this year given a seven-spot jump to No. 37 when it comes to health. They say the percentage of children without health insurance in New Mexico is now lower than the national average.

“This is great for the state because when children have insurance they are more likely to get well-baby and well-child checkups, vaccinations, vision and hearing screenings and other preventive care that helps ensure healthy development and helps them do their best in school,” said James Jimenez, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, the advocacy group that runs the Kids Count program in the state.

Arizona also saw a drop in the number of children going without insurance, but advocates there warned that any changes to state and federal policies for government-funded programs could result in a backslide.

Arizona saw the number of children living in poverty inch up along with the number of children living in single-parent families. Overall, the state slipped to 46th.

New Mexico ranks last in education with a high percentage of fourth graders not proficient in reading - an issue Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has been unsuccessful in tackling. Some lawmakers have rebuffed her efforts to end the practice of so-called social promotion, or the passing of third graders onto the next level despite not meeting literacy standards.

Opponents of student retention say it doesn’t necessarily improve reading skills and can interfere with social and academic development.

Nevada ranked second to last in education for having one of the highest percentages - 66 percent - of young children not participating in early learning programs.

According to the Kids Count report, quality pre-kindergarten programs play a role in preparing children for success. Although the expansion of state-funded programs since the 1990s have increased access to preschool and kindergarten, researchers found many children, especially those in low-income families, continue to be left out and that’s exacerbating socio-economic differences in academic achievement.

In New Mexico, state officials say they have made strides when it comes to early childhood education and plan to build on their success by getting more families signed up for government-funded child care assistance.

Henry Varela, a spokesman for the state Children, Youth and Families Department, said improving the quality of life for children remains the agency’s top priority and that despite improvements in nearly all categories, there’s still work to be done.

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Online: https://www.aecf.org/resources/2017-kids-count-data-book/

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Follow Susan Montoya Bryan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/susanmbryanNM

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