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The way forward: Advocates for children weigh in on govt. solutions

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Searchlight New Mexico

Lawmakers introduce hundreds of bills each session that propose to fund programs for children and families. They aim to improve the education system, prevent and punish child abuse, alter the tax code and extend medical benefits to impoverished families.

New Mexico is now officially ranked as the worst state in the country to be a child, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Some see opportunity in being 50th. Like an addict who has reached rock bottom, there is no place to go but up.

So what can the Legislature actually do to make a difference? What is the most critical action the new governor can take to move the dial? What is the one thing that could come out of the 2019 session that would signal the promise of real change for the children of New Mexico?

Searchlight asked these questions of a variety of advocates for children across the state. Their suggestions range from investing in better health care to fixing the troubled Children, Youth & Families Department. The one constant is education.

Child advocate James Jimenez, MPA, joined New Mexico Voices for Children in 2013 and became executive director in 2016. He also serves as an adjunct professor at the University of New Mexico’s School of Public Administration. In both positions he draws from his considerable experience working in state and city government. Jimenez served as the chief of staff under Gov. Bill Richardson from 2006 to 2008, and as cabinet secretary of the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration from 2003 to 2006. He has also served as city manager for the city of Rio Rancho. Jimenez volunteers for several nonprofit organizations.

Here are a few of Jimenez’s responses to Searchlight New Mexico’s questions. Responses from six other advocates can be found at searchlightnm.com.

What’s the single most important legislation the state should adopt to improve child well-being?

It will take a concerted, multifaceted effort to significantly improve child well-being because it is dependent on so many factors. But one policy with a proven, positive rate of return is high-quality early childhood care and learning.

The first five years of life are critical for laying the foundation for future success, so the investments that we make in those years pay off dividends for children and society for many years — and future generations — down the road.

Another aspect of early childhood services that makes them a particularly good investment is that they are two-generation approaches — meaning they benefit both children and their parents.

Home visiting, which is essentially personal coaching for new parents, has been shown to improve health, education, and economic outcomes for the whole family.

Child care and pre-K, in addition to the social and learning benefits for the child, enable parents to work while their children are cared for in a safe, nurturing environment.

The economic reality for the 21st century is that few families can survive on one paycheck. That makes child care a necessity. Since high-quality child care — the kind that helps prepare children for success in school — is more expensive than tuition at UNM, it is out of reach financially for many families.

New Mexico’s child care assistance program is underfunded, and because assistance drops off before families can cover the full cost themselves, it actually creates a financial disincentive for parents to get ahead.

We want our anti-poverty programs to help families work their way out of poverty, not keep them mired in it. Fortunately, we’ve spoken with Governor Lujan Grisham about it and fixing this financial “cliff” effect is on her agenda.

What’s the single most important administrative action the governor should take for child well-being?

There is much Governor Lujan Grisham can do administratively to help ensure that the state’s children can stay heathy and see a doctor.

Medicaid — the health insurance program for low-income children, seniors, and the disabled — covers more than half of New Mexico’s kids, yet there are many unnecessary hurdles to getting and staying enrolled. Simplifying the enrollment and recertification process would help keep more kids covered.

In addition, the governor should implement express-lane enrollment, which allows the state to use income eligibility information it already has on file for other programs — such as Head Start or the National School Lunch Program — to determine eligibility for Medicaid. 

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