Results from this year's annual national survey of childhood wellbeing have New Mexico leaders once again lifting praises to the heavens for the poor and impoverished people from the state of Mississippi.
New Mexico no longer ranks dead last in the nation in caring for our children. This year's survey ranks the state 49th, edging ahead of the Magnolia State. While that may come as a bit of relief for some, it is still scant reason to celebrate.
"Although our ranking has slightly improved, there is still much work to be done to improve children's ability to thrive in the state," said Veronica C. García, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, which runs the KIDS COUNT program in New Mexico for the Annie E. Casey Foundation. "It's a tiny step forward, but only if we can keep up the positive momentum of change."
While the overall ranking is still distressing, there were some positive signs in the report. Notably, the high school graduation rate increased from 67 percent in 2010 to 74 percent in 2012.
Last month, Education Week magazine reported that New Mexico was second only to the District of Columbia in improvement of its graduation rate. This is no small accomplishment, as we know a high school diploma can make an enormous difference in the lifetime earning potential of the graduate.
The state also saw improvements in child poverty, which fell from 31 percent to 29 percent, and in the teen birth rate, which dropped from 53 births per 1,000 to 47 births.
However, in other areas our state took a step back. More children are living in single-parent families or in high-poverty areas. The percentage of eighth-graders proficient in math decline by 1 point.
There were some troubling long-term trends. Fourth-grade reading proficiency has improved in every state in the nation since 1992 except North Dakota and New Mexico. And while the percentage of teens between 16 to 19 who are not working or in school has declined nationally, it has gone up in New Mexico.
The Casey Foundation has been releasing data on childhood wellbeing for 25 years now, and New Mexico has always been among the lowest states in that ranking.
The survey looks at 16 key indicators that have an impact on a child's likely ability to succeed. The child's immediate family, schools and neighborhood all factor into the rankings.
In New Mexico, high rates of poverty have always relegated us to the bottom of the list. The best the state ever finished was 40th, in 1995. Despite that, last year's 50th-place showing was both an embarrassment and a wake-up call. This year's climb to 49th place cannot be seen as an invitation to complacency.
"The fact that New Mexico has always been in the bottom 10 states — and this year in the bottom five states — in terms of child wellbeing is what's concerning," Garcia said. "In other words, we need to do better by our children — much, much better."