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Early childhood initiatives will pay off

In her State of the State address, Gov. Susana Martinez led with a powerful call to action, urging the legislature “to commit ourselves to the task of charting a better and stronger future for our children in everything we do this session.”

At the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, we wholeheartedly agree that it is essential to put children first. It has been well-documented that too many of New Mexico’s children are living in poverty, struggling academically and are victims of abuse and violence.

According to the Kids Count Data Center and New Mexico Voices for Children, the state ranks 48th nationally in child poverty. Nearly half of New Mexico’s children are not proficient in reading by third grade. And according to the New Mexico Department of Health, as reported by law enforcement, 10 percent of the victims of domestic violence were 12 years old or younger.

Together, we can turn things around, beginning with a continued and expanded investment in prenatal and early childhood services.

The path to a healthy and successful future for our kids starts in the earliest years of their lives. Research has shown that 90 percent of a child’s brain development occurs before the age of 5, which tells us that a child’s learning begins well before he or she ever sets foot in a kindergarten classroom.

High quality, early childhood development is an economically smart investment. Home visiting programs offer an example of services that support expectant and new parents during pregnancy and up until a child reaches 5 years of age.

A national study published by the Pew Center on the States noted that mothers who participated in a home visiting program had a 30-month reduction in welfare use and an 82 percent increase in the number of months employed. National research has demonstrated home visits increas school readiness and academic achievement, and can reduce child abuse and neglect by between 50 percent and 80 percent.

Studies have also shown home visiting reduces rates of low birth-weight babies, which can result in long-term development delays and high medical care costs (state governments often pay up to $40,000 in medical care for each low birth-weight infant). In New Mexico, 1,984 babies were born at a low birth-weight in 2013 – reducing that number by half can save the state as much as $39.7 million.

New Mexico has made steady increases in funding of early childhood programs. But with almost 140,000 children under the age of 5 in New Mexico and approximately 28,000 new babies born each year, there is still much more that can and needs to be done. While 2,000 children and their families had access to home visiting programs last year, more than 12,000 families could have benefitted from these services.

Policymakers in New Mexico are already considering how resources can be used to support early childhood initiatives. For example, the state’s Legislative Finance Committee recently proposed an additional $25 million for early childhood initiatives, recognizing the importance of aligning prenatal programs, early literacy, childcare assistance, K-3 and home visiting in order to improve child health and education outcomes.

When it comes to our children, let’s work together to build a robust system that invests in the entire continuum that supports optimal child development. As state leaders make decisions to respond to the needs of our children, we urge them to consider the evidence linking the health and well-being of children’s first five years to their long-term success in life.

New Mexico’s children deserve our collective support and their future demands it. We must work together to place children at the center of all we do. Our foundation will continue to partner with and support parents, community leaders, local organizations and policymakers to put our children, their communities and New Mexico on the road to success.

As New Mexico’s elected leaders work to improve the future for this state’s children, we encourage them to listen to their communities and further explore the proven benefits of investing in our kids from the start.