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NM children need early childhood help

New Mexico is a state that has been blessed with many resources, although there has not been sound agreement as to which resource is the most important. Count me among the thousands of New Mexicans who strongly believe that our children are our most important resource.

Just recently, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center for Health Policy at the University of New Mexico hosted the national 2015 Early Childhood Development and Health Symposium. The data presented by leading scholars in the field from across the nation clearly show that we must focus and invest more in the early development of our children if we truly want New Mexico’s kids to succeed.

There is a common misconception that pre-kindergarten is the only place that we can invest in for early childhood development. The speakers at our symposium strongly indicated that early childhood development starts the moment the child is born.

The majority of development happens from infancy to age 4. However, this is the stage of our children’s lives that is receiving the least amount of public investments both nationally and here in New Mexico.

Children in New Mexico face many challenges. Thirty percent of New Mexico’s children live in poverty. We have to ask ourselves, what’s at stake for these babies and children if we do not intervene early to mitigate the damaging effects of poverty?

Unfortunately, we all know the answer to this question.

Some of the basic functions that develop in the early stages of a child’s life are not cultivated to their fullest extent because of the instability and stress caused by poverty. Some of these functions include following directions and achieving a goal, controlling impulses, focusing attention and shifting attention, emotional regulation, and the ability to respond to social threat.

These are not all of the milestones that poverty often inhibits — but they are some of the most important building blocks for a child’s development. Instability in a child’s life affects early learning and is a likely active contributor to disparities in life outcomes linked to socio-economic status.

While our state Legislature is rather generous in terms of overall funding for K-12 education, we are not adequately funding early development programs for all of New Mexico’s children.

Policy decisions often require prioritizing among important yet competing resources. In this state, we have seen a contrast between investment in early child development and job creation. This was apparent with the recent $250 million tax break for big corporations. This $250 million gift — courtesy of New Mexico taxpayers — is going to the likes of Wal-Mart, Target and Intel.

One estimate of the cost of providing early childhood development for all of New Mexico’s kids who currently do not have access to such programs comes in close to $300 million. Imagine what that $250 million would have done for New Mexico’s kids.

While we all recognize the need for job growth in our state, leading economists, like those who spoke at our event, contend that investment in early childhood has far greater return than other initiatives, including tax breaks for corporations.

What we cannot afford to do is to squander our greatest resource by diminishing the life chances of another generation of New Mexico’s children. Our policymakers must choose between two competing priorities. Will it be kids or corporations?

If they continue making the wrong choice, our kids will stay at the bottom. It’s time to help New Mexico’s kids; it’s time to help New Mexico.

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