By Margaret Wright
— It’s dismal to admit, but I wasn’t surprised when the 2013 Kids Count survey was released with New Mexico ranked dead last in the country for childhood well-being.
That’s because I’d already been reeling from the results of an unrelated study published the week before. Feeding America, a national hunger-relief charity, placed New Mexico first in the U.S. for our high levels of childhood hunger. Researchers found more than 30 percent—about one-third—of kids in our state suffering from food insecurity.
That number means far too many kids are at risk for stunted physical and brain growth. It means more of our babies die in infancy. Hungry kids don’t consume enough micronutrients, vitamins and minerals, which increases their risk of developmental delays and disabilities. They disproportionately suffer from weak immune systems and chronic diseases. They require more emergency room and doctor visits, and they exhibit higher levels of behavioral and emotional problems.
Adequate nutrition is among the most basic of essentials. If our community is failing to meet that need, in what other ways are kids suffering? Poor nutrition doesn’t happen in isolation. It occurs alongside other risk factors like poverty, maternal depression and exposure to violence—all of which can have lasting negative effects on childhood development. The prevalence of such risks was tragically confirmed once again by the Kids Count report.
Like many members of the press—not to mention policymakers—I’ve been fixated on the shortcomings of our K-12 education system. Debates over how to reform our public schools distract from the root problem because they involve huge money (more than half of our state budget) and controversial political agendas.
The fact is that we fail young children and their families long before they enter our K-12 schools.
As the World Bank points out, school readiness isn’t just about cognitive skills—it also involves physical, mental and environmental factors. “Without access to quality early childhood development,” the report continues, “poor children often fall behind their more advantaged peers before they even begin school.” That gap only widens over time.
We pour monumental amounts of money into addressing symptoms of a more fundamental problem. We’re failing to provide for children during their most essential developmental stages from conception to age 5.
Improving outcomes for children must be our state’s chief priority if we’re going to claw our way up from the bottom of every terrible list. It’s a moral imperative first and foremost, though it’s also an economic one. To do so, we must concentrate a lot more attention and capital on our youngest community members and their caregivers.
Some will argue that solving our early childhood woes is all about creating opportunity and income for parents. But solving the problem of historical poverty is much more complex than job creation. The mania for courting “job creators” by slashing taxes for businesses (namely out-of-state corporations and select industries) can’t be depended upon to grow our private sector or diversify our economy. That’s especially the case when both conservative and liberal politicians block transparency measures that would track the effectiveness of business tax incentives.
It’s also a problem when the same people emphasizing the importance of employment simultaneously undercut policies that support vulnerable working families—a growing number of which are headed by single women—such as pay equity, adequate health care and child care subsidies.
Instead of engaging in a dubious race against other states to give away millions in business taxes, we need a long-range plan centered on improving our human resources. The work of economists like Nobel Laureate James Heckman demonstrates that improving access to quality early childhood programs is the best place to begin.
Heckman concluded that investments in proven early childhood development strategies result in annual returns of 7 to 10 percent on the dollar. Those investments “reduce the achievement gap, reduce the need for special education, increase the likelihood of healthier lifestyles, lower the crime rate and reduce overall social costs.”
One of the governor’s most striking 2010 campaign spots centered on the story of Baby Brianna, a 5-month-old who died after being severely abused by her family members. A somber Martinez declared that “we have to fight for those kids who were killed this way.” She added, “I want to fight for New Mexicans, and I want to turn New Mexico around.” The ad portrayed her as a fierce champion of justice, a vanguard for meaningful transformation, a protector of children.
As our abysmal rankings indicate, New Mexico desperately requires a leader with those qualities. But our politicos have been unable to meaningfully embody them. The Martinez administration played a key role in expanding funding as of July 1 for pre-K programs. In its celebration of that accomplishment, her office failed to mention what a low bar it was clearing: During FY2010, the state spent only $33 million—less than 1 percent of the entire budget—on early childhood services.
And lawmakers of every stripe failed this past legislative session when state Sen. John Arthur Smith (D-Deming) was able to kill a measure that would direct more permanent fund money into early childhood services.
Even exponential increases in status quo funding are mere drops in the bucket. Martinez has an opportunity to use her rising star on the national stage to draw attention, public participation and money toward the desperate plight of our most needy kids. It’s time for drastic measures when it comes to improving our state’s future, beginning with our youngest children.
New Mexico needs a modified version of the Apollo Space Program—but rather than shoot for the moon, we must aim for ground-level change. We must invest effectively in holistic, culturally appropriate early development supports for every child. And we must begin that crucial work, like, yesterday.