By Susan Montoya Bryan
The Associated Press
ALBUQUERQUE — A New Mexico children’s advocacy group on Tuesday presented the latest troubling statistics on child poverty, teen birth rates and math and reading proficiency during the first day of the legislative session, hoping to spur action by lawmakers.
Officials with New Mexico Voices for Children and others gathered at the state Capitol to release the annual New Mexico Kids Count report.
It shows 42 percent of New Mexico children now live in single-parent households, and the state ranks last when it comes to the reading proficiency of fourth-graders. Overall, New Mexico ranks 49th in child well-being behind Mississippi.
The indicators included in the report serve as measures for the state’s future economic, education and health successes, said Veronica Garcia, the group’s executive director.
“This year’s prognosis sends a clear message that trends are going the wrong way, and they are not going to turn around by themselves,” she said.
Garcia said the state’s early childhood education programs are only reaching a tiny percentage of children, and less than 2 percent of the state’s budget goes toward funding these programs.
New Mexico Voices for Children is advocating for a constitutional amendment that would allow for tapping one of the state’s permanent funds for money specifically for early childhood education.
Rep. Rick Miera, an Albuquerque Democrat who chairs the House Education Committee, said focusing on young children and their families is going to be the only significant way New Mexico can turn around the statistics.
“We’ve got to start early,” he said, adding that Gov. Susana Martinez’s support for education and the Legislature’s new members could determine the success of the proposal this year.
Garcia suggested one place that policy makers can start is by focusing on reforms that would boost reading proficiency and graduation rates while ensuring fewer children are plagued by substance abuse problems.
New Mexico ranks 48th among the states in the proportion of teens who abuse alcohol and drugs. Data from the state Department of Health and the Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey show 1 in 4 high school students uses illicit drugs and/or engages in binge drinking.
The Kids Count report also shows nearly one-third of New Mexico children live in poverty and 37 percent have parents who lack secure employment.
A separate report released Tuesday shows New Mexico falling to 50th in the country in its percentage of low-income working families.
The Working Poor Families Project reviewed 2011 census data and found there were 89,000 low-income working families in New Mexico — a 4 percent increase from 2007.
Nationally, data also shows the number of low-income working families is growing, with nearly a third of the 10.4 million working families in the U.S. struggling to earn enough money to meet basic needs.
Brandon Roberts, co-author of the working poor analysis, said working families are facing a more challenging situation than those in the past.
Garcia called the trend troubling.
“Income inequality, or inequality of outcomes, is very much tied to inequality of opportunity,” she said. “Those who lacked good educational opportunities as children need additional supports as adults if we are to ensure that everyone has the same shot at the American dream.”