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Report: N.M. Has High Child Poverty

By Leann Holt
Journal Staff Writer
    More New Mexico children live in poverty, more are dying at a young age— but fewer are dropping out of high school.
    Those were some of the results of the newest Kids Count report, released today by the Annie E. Casey Foundation of Baltimore.
    Overall, the state— which has always sat near the bottom in national rankings— slipped two spots.
    The state ranked 46th in the nation in last year's report, which is based on 10 measurements of a child's well-being.
    In this year's report, the state fell to 48th, with only Mississippi and Louisiana faring worse. The new report is based on 2003-2004 data.
    Two of the primary factors in New Mexico's decline are increases in the number of childhood deaths and the number of children living in poverty.
    According to the Kids Count report, the rate of death in children ages 1 to 14 increased by 45 percent from 2000 to 2003 compared to a 5 percent decrease nationwide.
    The main increase was in death from natural causes, primarily childhood cancer.
    While the number of death by suicide in children over age 15 decreased, the number of suicides in children ages 1 to 14 more than doubled— something that caught the attention of Michelle Lujan Grisham, secretary of the Department of Health.
    In 2000, four young children committed suicide; in 2003, 10 children committed suicide.
    "We are still struggling with suicide, which is why it remains a number one focus for us," she said. "We're going to look at all the things we've done and make sure we're on target."
    From 2000 to 2004, the percentage of New Mexico children living in poverty increased from 26 percent in 2000 to 28 percent in 2004.
    In 2004, 33 percent of New Mexico children under 6 lived in poverty compared to the national average of 21 percent.
    On the plus side, the number of teen births dropped from 66 per 1,000 in 2000 to 63 in 2003. However, that still was far higher than the national rate of 42 teen births per 1,000.
    In fact, New Mexico was the third highest in births to girls ages 15 to 19.
    The state's best score came in the rate of infant mortality, which ranked 15th in the nation.
    The report set New Mexico's 2004 high school dropout rate at 12 percent, compared to 16 percent in 2000.
    But the state ranked 48th in that category.
    Angie Vachio, founder of the family service agency PB&J, said she believes the Kids Count report accurately reflects what she observes every day.
    "It's rough out there," Vachio said. "I see more families than ever struggling. Our poor are getting poorer."
    Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, said improvements are being made that are not reflected in the Kids Count report, because it uses 2003 and 2004 data.
    Recent initiatives to medically insure all children under age 5, expand early childhood education and develop more youth programs should make a difference in the state's ranking in a couple of years, Denish said.
    And continuing to bring higher-paying jobs to the state will help New Mexico's children most of all, she said.
    "I think we're turning the corner economically," said Denish, who heads the state's Children's Cabinet. "And when we see the impact of the Year of the Child programs, we'll continue to see improvements."
    Sara Beth Koplik, Kids Count program manager for New Mexico Voices for Children, said many families are still struggling.
    "They're told 'good luck doing it on your own,' '' she said.
    Al and Ruth Bylilly are working hard to lift their family of five out of poverty. But it is a difficult task.
    Al Bylilly, who has a two-year degree and works as a computer draftsman for less than $30,000 a year, can't afford a raise. Any increase would disqualify him for housing assistance and likely put his family back on welfare.
    Ruth Bylilly wants to get an education so she can get a good job. But the family can't afford child care.
    Her children qualify for Medicaid, but Ruth Bylilly has no health insurance. She tries to eat well to stay healthy, but quality food costs more than she can sometimes afford.
    If she ever requires major medical attention, the family will be financially devastated, she said.
    The Bylillys say they don't want a handout, but they would like some "help up" to get an education and health care.
    "We know there's a better way to live," Ruth Bylilly said recently at her home. "We want to contribute to society."
    William O'Hare, one of the authors of the Kids Count report, said New Mexicans should realize there are no quick fixes to better child welfare, especially for a state that has been so far behind for so long.
    "When you have a lot of poverty, you have a lot of bad outcomes," he said. "These things don't change quickly. But if you don't start now, it won't ever happen."