New Mexico leads the nation with the most children under age 5 living in poverty – 36.2 percent, according to just-released U.S. Census Bureau data.
That’s 5 percent more than second-place Mississippi’s 31.1 percent.
Two state legislators are taking this information to further their campaign for pulling extra funds from the Land Grant Permanent Fund to pay for programs specifically earmarked for early education.
Drawing just 1 percent more from the fund, which currently has $16.2 billion in it, would free up $136 million a year for those early childhood education programs, and without raising taxes by a single penny, said state Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas and Sen. Linda Lopez, both Albuquerque Democrats.
Under the state’s Constitution, 5 percent of the Land Grant Permanent Fund, based on the average of the previous five years, must be moved to the state’s general fund annually, to be used for schools and education programs. Raising that by even 1 percent would require a constitutional amendment.
Maestas and Lopez said during a Tuesday news conference at CHI (Christian Health Initiatives) St. Joseph’s Children in Albuquerque, that they are hoping to get a bill through both chambers of the Legislature when it convenes for its 30-day session in January, and then have the question on ballots in November.
“The Permanent Fund was created in 1910, when we didn’t have high schools,” Maestas said. Later, high school and then kindergarten were added when they became the norm. “The archaic distribution formula needs to catch up with the science, and the science now is that learning begins in early childhood.”
Allen Sánchez, president of CHI St. Joseph’s Children, said the new U.S. Census Bureau numbers “should sound alarms across New Mexico because New Mexico’s children are in trouble.”
CHI St. Joseph’s is a nonprofit that draws on its own $92 million trust fund to provide the state’s largest home visiting program for first-time parents in a seven-county area.
“The solution is investing in early childhood education programs, which is a long-term strategy for changing the cycle of poverty,” Sánchez said. Kids who have the advantage of such programs tend to be healthier, are less likely to become involved in the criminal justice system, and graduate from high school and college in greater numbers.
A short-term result is that while children are involved in early childhood programs, parents, particularly single parents, can enter the workforce and positively affect family income.
Maestas noted that New Mexico has the second-largest permanent fund in the country and distributing an additional 1 percent from it would not significantly diminish the fund. “It is unconscionable and there is no legitimate intellectual argument why we should not do this.”
New Mexico now has 30.1 percent of children under 18 living below the poverty level, based on 2016 data. That’s a rise of 1.5 percentage points, which placed New Mexico as the state with the highest overall child poverty level.
Last year, Mississippi led the nation with 31.3 percent of its children under age 18 living in poverty. That was based on data from 2015. This year, the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey data analyzing 2016 statistics puts Mississippi at 29.7 percent for children living below the poverty level.
The survey also includes Puerto Rico, which has 56.4 percent of its children living below poverty level.
The federal poverty threshold for a two-parent family with three children is $28,643, and for a single-parent family with two children is $19,337.
Journal staff writer Maggie Shepard contributed to this report.