What the Kids Count report reveals

New Mexico is once again at the bottom of the barrel for the well-being of children. The annual survey known as Kids Count has placed us at 50 out of 50.

Kids Count measures categories in the areas of economic well-being, education, health, and family and community. Behind the summary numbers are detailed analyses of characteristics that affect the lives of children and teenagers.

In economic well-being, the survey says 27 percent of New Mexico children live in poverty; 36 percent of their parents lack secure employment; 28 percent live in households that spend more than 30 percent of their pretax income on housing-related expenses; and 10 percent of teenagers are neither in school nor working.

These numbers do not surprise us, unfortunately. These issues bring us back to the difficult question of how to address rural poverty. It’s hard to create jobs in very small towns. Other states are not doing well with this issue, either.

The education category is just plain alarming: 56 percent of young children are not in school; 75 percent of fourth-graders are not proficient in reading; 80 percent of eighth graders are not proficient in math; and 29 percent of high school students are not graduating on time.

We’ve been beating ourselves up about education for decades. With the new governor and new revenue from oil and gas, there are ambitious new initiatives this year. New Mexico must stick to the commitment to expand early childhood education, afterschool programs and summer programs.

The health numbers look better than I would have guessed: 9.5 percent of babies are low birth weight; 5 percent of children have no health insurance; the child and teen death rate is 32 deaths per 100,000; and 6 percent of teens abuse alcohol or drugs. The death rate is not much worse than the national average of 26, and the drug and alcohol number is higher than the national average but lower than I would have expected. The report reminds us that the leading cause of death for children is accidents, especially motor vehicle.

In the category of family and community, two numbers stand out. First, 45 percent of children live in single-parent families. That’s a very significant number. A child living with only one adult is at a great disadvantage in many ways.

However, the report’s footnotes say “single parent” households include unmarried couples living together. Two parents in the household are generally better than one, married or not.

Second, the teen birth rate is 28 per 1000 population. That is more than twice as much as the teen birth rate for non-Hispanic whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The national statistics show that Hispanics, African-Americans and Native Americans have much higher teen birth rates.

This high number reminds us that education is not just about reading and arithmetic but also about cultural values, attitudes and expectations.

New Mexico does more than tolerate teenagers having babies. We accept it. Perhaps New Mexico’s institutions –– public, private and religious –– should be working harder at strategies to persuade vulnerable teenagers that it’s better to wait, or to persuade parents to impart those values to their children.

It’s well-established that when teenagers have children, the socioeconomic outcomes are significantly worse compared to teens who complete their education before becoming parents. They’re less likely to graduate and will have reduced their career and income options dramatically.

We don’t have to fall back on old concepts of morality that teenagers probably won’t believe anyway. There are ways to frame a message to young people about what is in their best interest.

The teen birth rate number is a contributor to all of those other problem statistics. Expanding access to education will help reduce that number, no doubt. Maybe we should go a little further and make it the next goal New Mexico sets.

Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2019

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