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It’s not an excuse, it’s a fact: Poverty hurts kids

It’s estimated that children will be a minority-majority population by 2018 nationally. In New Mexico – where 74 percent of children are racial/ethnic minorities – we’re way ahead of the trend.

In fact, only one other state (Hawaii) has a higher percentage of children who are racial or ethnic minorities. We have the highest percentage of Hispanic children and just two states (Alaska and South Dakota) have higher percentages of Native American children.

While we rightfully celebrate our rich cultural diversity, New Mexicans and our elected and civic leaders need to take action regarding racial disparities. Given our high percentage of minority children – and the fact that New Mexico has one of the highest child-poverty rates – determining and mitigating the causes of racial disparities must be our most urgent mission. Our economic sustainability and social cohesion are at risk.

It’s tragic that racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S. have higher rates of poverty, unemployment and incarceration, while they earn lower wages and have lower levels of educational attainment. The reasons for these outcomes are complex but the impacts of centuries of discriminatory policies and practices are still felt today.

Just like the advantages of wealth, the disadvantages of discrimination and poverty often are handed down from generation to generation. While some people blame culture or personal choice, the main driver of generational poverty is rooted in science: Adversity robs children of their potential. There are two distinct ways this happens.

Science shows us that 80 percent of our brain development occurs in the first five years of life. The networks of neural pathways built in these years form the foundation upon which later learning will depend.

Brain development is spurred by positive interactions with nurturing caregivers. These interactions are as simple as talking with and reading to our children, and helping them safely explore the world around them.

Since we generally parent the way we were parented, we nurture this brain development in much the same way our own was – or wasn’t – nurtured.

Children in poverty – whose parents are more likely to have lower levels of education – can have fewer opportunities to build the neural pathways they will need later to thrive in the classroom. In many cases, they literally have been robbed of their potential by the circumstances of their birth.

The other big detriment to healthy brain development is the experience of adverse childhood events. Abuse, neglect, homelessness, insufficient food and the like all produce toxic stress, which derails brain development. Even children in stable, nurturing families can experience toxic stress if they live in high-poverty areas.

We could play the blame game and lay all the responsibility at the feet of the parents. But blame won’t change the outcomes or their impacts on our state. Instead, we must do a better job of preventing adverse childhood experiences and ensuring that every child has access to the opportunities that will enable them to reach their potential.

We can reduce the impacts of poverty by making sure all parents have the resources they need. That means increasing public funding for high-quality home visiting programs, which help parents become their child’s first teacher and lower the incidence of child abuse.

High-quality child care programs can also nurture early brain development and pre-K helps children develop the “executive functions” – impulse control, the ability to focus, filter distraction and more – that prepare them for success in school. State funding for these programs has increased, but still meets only a fraction of the need. We must also fully fund and staff our child protective agencies, and make it easier for children to receive benefits like Medicaid and SNAP.

Poverty and racial disparities create barriers to the kinds of opportunities kids need in order to thrive. It’s not an excuse, it’s a fact. And until we face that fact with a more comprehensive plan to mitigate these barriers, New Mexico is destined for a dim future.

Veronica Garcia is a former Secretary of Education.