The nonprofit New Mexico Voices for Children on Wednesday released its 2019 Kids Count Data Book, an annual report on child well-being, saying the results spotlight a need for the state to continue investing heavily in its youngest residents.

While the state’s child poverty rate improved slightly, to 26 percent in 2018 from 27 percent in 2017, New Mexico dropped to 49th in the nation for the measure from 48th a year earlier, indicating other states made larger gains.

According to the report, 41 percent of Native American children and 30 percent of Hispanic children in New Mexico were living below the federal poverty line in 2018, which was $20,780 for a family of three, compared to 14 percent of non-Hispanic white children.

Released just ahead of the New Mexico Legislature’s 2020 session, the report recommends policy improvements the nonprofit says are required to pull the state from the bottom of most national rankings tied to education, child health, family economics and community support.

During a conference call Wednesday, New Mexico Voices for Children Executive Director James Jimenez emphasized what he said is a need for sustained investments in children.

“We can’t think of child well-being in terms of one-off opportunities,” Jimenez said. “One of the indicators is fourth grade reading proficiency. There’s a lot of children under that age group right now who we need to invest in year after year.”

In 2018, New Mexico ranked 50th in the nation for the rate of fourth graders who showed proficiency in reading — the first year in nearly a decade in which the rate declined — and 49th for the rate of eighth graders proficient in math, according to the report. And while the state saw a dip in its child and teen death rates, its teen birth rate and its rate of youth reporting use of alcohol and illegal drugs, its percentage of “disconnect youth” — those ages 16 to 19 who are neither employed nor in school — rose to 12 percent in 2018, compared with 10 percent the previous year.

To help raise reading levels and lower dropout rates, New Mexico Voices for Children said, it supports two funding proposals for the 30-day legislative session, which starts Tuesday, to help boost early childhood programs.

The first is a bill sponsored by state Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, and Rep. Doreen Gallegos, D-Las Cruces, that would appropriate $320 million from the state’s general fund to start a new endowment to generate revenue for early childhood services. The proposed endowment, which has the support of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, would generate $20 million in its first year. With additional investments of $300 million a year for three years, to build the fund to $1 billion, it eventually could generate $50 million annually, state officials say.

The second measure the nonprofit backs is a joint resolution by state Reps. Antonio Maestas and Javier Martínez, both Albuquerque Democrats, that would ask New Mexico voters to approve an annual distribution of 1 percent of the five-year average of the Land Grant Permanent Fund to early childhood education. That investment fund, which largely draws fees from oil and gas operations on state trust land, now stands at more than $19 billion and benefits public schools and universities.

This is the eighth straight year such a resolution has been proposed. According to a legislative analysis, it would generate around $175 million per year.

The governor has not backed Maestas and Martínez’s proposal, however, and Smith, a powerful lawmaker who chairs the Senate Finance Committee and the joint interim Legislative Finance Committee, has fiercely opposed efforts to increase withdrawals from the Land Grant Permanent Fund.

New Mexico Voices for Children believes the state’s kids need every dollar they can get.

“Both of these funds can be part of the solution,” Jimenez said. “Even if we were to get $160 [million] or $170 million from the land grant fund, that’s still not enough. Just look at the need.

“I would refute any notion about the volatility of the land grant fund,” he added. “If anything, it’s the most stable funding source we have, as it draws on not only oil and gas revenue but the stock market.”

Elizabeth Groginsky, secretary-designate of the state’s newly created Early Childhood Education and Care Department, said the Kids Count report explains the need for her department to create a more coherent, unified and effective response to youth issues than the state has seen in years past, while also asserting that proven solutions are obtainable.

“Kids Count is right to point out the enormous challenges facing our state’s early childhood services system,” Groginsky said.

“We know that high-quality health and educational programs for children deliver an astonishing return on investment,” she added, “including significant gains in nearly every area we care about: education, health, employment, and social and emotional behavior.”

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