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Old story goes viral and revives debate over children’s well-being

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A Journal article published earlier this year concerning New Mexico’s family friendliness – or lack thereof – reappeared this week on the interwebs, reigniting a debate over how enchanted our land actually is for our kiddos.

The article, written by my colleague Rick Nathanson and originally published Jan. 9, was based on a report from WalletHub, a personal finance website, which deemed New Mexico the worst state in which to raise a family, based on 49 metrics and five specific areas: family fun, health and safety, education and child care, affordability, and socioeconomic situation.

Our high rates of crime, poverty, infant mortality and single-parent homes, as reported in the article, didn’t help, either.

Why the article resurfaced is unclear. What was clear is how polarizing this grim assessment remains.

“I love New Mexico,” wrote Leanne P., who answered my call on Facebook to weigh in. “But like my home state of Alabama, it fails its children. Throw in a cycle of poverty and violence and an economy that doesn’t produce enough middle-class jobs, and it’s a tough place to raise a kid.”

Anybody who reads the annual Kids Count Data Book from the Annie E. Casey Foundation should not have been surprised at the dismal ranking.

In its 2019 report, New Mexico ranked 50th out of the 50 states for child well-being. That assessment is based on 16 indicators involving economy, education, health, family and community. New Mexico has been at the bottom three times – in 2013, 2018 and again this year, although the state has hovered in the lower 40s since 1997, when it plummeted from 38 to 44 and kept on nose-diving.

Each time such reports are released, state and community leaders tout efforts already underway – “great strides,” as one put it – to remedy the situation, cautioning that it takes time for results to become apparent.

“Child well-being will increase when families have solid footing beneath them,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in one article, adding that improving education and battling poverty are crucial to that footing.

That reminded me of the work that many of my former colleagues and I at the dearly departed Albuquerque Tribune did to delineate and dissect the reasons New Mexico’s children don’t fare as well as they should.

“The State of Our Children,” a three-week series, looked at 18 areas in which New Mexico ranks at or near the bottom then assigned each area to the appropriate age – early education for age 3, for instance. Teen pregnancy for age 15. Suicide for age 18. And so on.

We then identified a child whose story exemplified the issue, mindful of finding children from across the state and reflective of New Mexico ethnic groups.

We found Sergio, 6, of Albuquerque to tell the story of family violence. Cheyenne, 10, of Crystal for rural isolation. TeAnna, 13, of Bloomfield for substance abuse. Arnell, 16, of Clovis for juvenile justice. And so on.

We spoke with experts, gleaned research and statistics to lay out the issue, then offered ways to tackle the conditions that kept these kids from thriving – or, in some cases, staying alive.

After the project was published, we brought state lawmakers and child advocates together for a roundtable discussion. The group offered a variety of ideas, among them an emphasis on the importance of fathers, improved access to health care and mental health care, and more funding for education, especially in early childhood.

That project was published in 2002.

Seventeen years and four governors (two Republicans and two Democrats) later, and those ideas and “great strides” haven’t got us very far.

Just how long does it take for results to become apparent?

Many of the folks who responded to the WalletHub article that resurfaced this week were dismissive or disdainful of it. Clickbait, one insisted repeatedly. Fake news, another argued.

“They fail to take into account the strength and resilience many families in New Mexico have,” Antoinette L. wrote. “Families are more than those five factors. I am tired of looking at the deficiencies without noticing the strengths.”

Rayellen S. added: “Great families have been raised here for thousands of years!”

Even my own daughter weighed in.

“I think I turned out OK,” she said.

It’s a complex issue, not distilled readily in statistics, not solved simply by pointing fingers or throwing money or platitudes at. New Mexico has its strengths, its resilience, its culture, its enchantment, and those must be a part of whatever it is we do to improve our children’s well-being.

The old article resurfacing and the even older series are reminders of how much farther we have to go. And so on.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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