SANTA FE, N.M. — The child poverty “news” in New Mexico is so old, why even pretend to call it news! Once a year when the Kids Count data is released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a couple of days’ attention is paid to the criminal and immoral level of poverty grinding down New Mexico families. And then nothing happens except children and their families continue to suffer.
The number of children living in poverty in the United States is staggering, more than 16 million children. Since 2000 the number of poor children in the U.S. has increased by more than 5 million. Nearly half of these children live in extreme poverty, including two and a half million children under the age of five. “Extreme poverty” is defined as half the official federal poverty line or $11,511 per year for a family of four.
In sparsely populated New Mexico, at least 150,000 children live in poverty and nearly 80,000 in extreme poverty. This is using census data and, due to under-counting in the state, the real numbers are sure to be even greater.
Almost all of New Mexico is categorized as an area of “persistent poverty” by the federal Department of Agriculture (USDA). This designation means that an area has a poverty rate higher than one out of every five people and that this extreme degree of poverty extends all the way back 43 years to the 1970 Census. Across the nation, 82 percent of the persistent poverty counties are rural, especially the isolated rural areas commonly known as frontier. How is this not a national shame and the number one priority of government?
These are not abstract numbers – each number is a person. Think of all the children growing up with so little. As federal cuts are enacted, the crumbs to the poor became the crumbs of the crumbs. And now? Not even enough support for people to feed their children. Children in New Mexico are starving, having their mental and physical futures threatened by inadequate nutrition. And this situation grew during the biggest boom and flow of money to the top in recent history. When the financial system’s Ponzi scheme bubble burst a few years back, poor people and poor communities were thrown overboard while Wall Street got a bailout.
It took years of neglect – of people putting personal enrichment over community improvement – to push our children into such an unresourced situation.
There are a lot of ways to look at how New Mexico children ended up statistically on the bottom of national comparisons of child well-being. I say “statistically on the bottom” because the reality of our strong, resilient communities – even under economic siege – paints a very different picture.
For nearly 40 years, I have been number crunching this awful data and trying to change it by working on state and national policy trying to wrangle money for rural and frontier communities. What I have learned is that poverty in New Mexico is boring and of little interest to our federal elected officials. They are too busy continuously raising campaign cash; choosing to fund border security instead of food security and nuclear weapons instead of nuclear (and all other) families; protecting the minimum wage instead of fighting for a living wage; and too many other examples to name right now. It feels as if the state slogan should be changed to Women and Children Last.
But, it is state elected officials who are primarily responsible for the crushing poverty in the state. Despite denials from state legislators, the only way to explain the range of poverty levels among the states is legislative action – or inaction. Otherwise how is it possible for New Hampshire to have a poverty rate of 9 percent and New Mexico and seven other states to have rates above 20 percent? In my opinion, the worst eight states have legislators who are child abusers, quite content to let poor children and their families try to fend for themselves in the interest of the misnamed “free market.”
A mom and a child in New Mexico receive a maximum of $304 per month as cash assistance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). This level is set by the state government and ranges from a high of $923 in Alaska to a low of $204 in Arkansas. In New Mexico, a family needs to have five members to get over $500 per month.
Because of the Richardson tax cuts for the rich, which contributed to a significant loss of state revenues, the state Human Services Department was one of those in six states in 2011 that cut income support benefits to try to balance state budgets on the backs of the very poor. When adjusted for inflation, New Mexico “benefits” have declined 31 percent in real dollars since President Clinton signed welfare reform in 1996.
In the face of the bad policy choices made by their elected representatives, the communities of New Mexico persevere and demonstrate a strength and resilience that is remarkable. Traditions ranging in age from millennia to centuries to yesterday and tomorrow help communities endure. Water courses that were hand dug hundreds of years ago still flow and irrigate crops.
Many New Mexico children grow up in tightly knit multi-generational families that work together to buffer the effects of the poverty. Visit any pre-school or Headstart and you will see that most of our children begin their lives as artists, musicians, athletes and academic whiz-kids. It is sad to watch an economic system designed to impose failure, debt and a struggle for daily existence drain families of their potential.
It is time for all New Mexicans to stand up and say basta ya, enough! We must demand that the elected officials act like representatives of the people and develop policies backed up with enough funding to let New Mexico children and families reach their full potential. Our communities deserve more than just crumbs, they also need a share of the cake.
It is time to create jobs that pay a living wage and provide health care. Jobs that build capacity and infrastructure throughout the state, like libraries, recycling centers, environmental clean-up, forest thinning and fuel use instead of controlled burns, sewer line construction and wastewater management, playgrounds – the list can go on and on.
We can learn from programs of the 1980s when young people learned construction skills by building greenhouses on community facilities and the homes of seniors.
Poor and low income New Mexicans want to work. We must challenge our policy makers to create those jobs. That is the only way to turn around the statistics and begin New Mexico’s climb up from the bottom.
Miller is a longtime public health advocate and lobbyist.