the north face mcmurdo A sad state for New Mexico’s children
Thirty years ago, a nonprofit report on the well being of New Mexico’s children painted a disturbingly bleak portrait of the lives of the state’s youngest residents.
The Coalition for Children’s Kids in Crisis: New Mexico’s Other Bomb report, released in 1987, was a compendium of doom: Twenty percent of young children in New Mexico lived in poverty; fully half of Native American children did so. More than 40 percent of students in third, fifth and eighth grades scored below average on standardized tests. Twenty five percent dropped out of high school without graduating. New Mexico had the seventh highest teen birth rate in the nation and the highest rate of infant mortality.
“If we do not save the children,” he warned, “we do not save the future.”
The report received a good deal of media attention on TV, radio and in print. People were surprised, disheartened, even outraged.
It seemed like a turning point.
Yet in the three decades that have elapsed, the crisis has, in many ways, grown more dire, according to an in depth, monthslong assessment conducted by Searchlight New Mexico, a nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organization.
Of New Mexico’s nearly 500,000 children, 29 percent live in poverty, the highest rate in the nation.
Thirty three percent of New Mexican students drop out of high school the worst graduation rate in the country.
The number of children living with a single parent has climbed from 23 percent in 1990 to 41 percent today. The state’s prison population tripled between 1986 and 2015, and 10 percent of New Mexico kids now have a parent who has done time.
Meanwhile, many of the Kids in Crisis from 1987 have become parents themselves. Some are even grandparents. Every year, some 20,000 to 25,000 New Mexico babies are born in a state where the odds are stacked against them setting many up for a repeat of their parents’ lives.
Child well being, after all, isn’t about numbers and rankings. It’s about the lives of children.
Francesca Duran turns 2 in 1987 in a one bedroom house on the wrong side of Clovis.
Her mother, Olivia, grew up with 11 siblings in a small shack near the railroad tracks. It wasn’t much more than a chicken coop, but her father had turned it into a home by installing windows and partitioning off rooms. Olivia’s mother made the curtains on her Singer sewing machine.
Little Francesca is nicknamed “Frankie,” and by the time she comes along, Olivia has two older girls, Tammy, who is 8, and Felicia,
The house payments are $155 a month and welfare helps; the family receives $300 a month from the federal government. But even with the money Frankie’s father earns by installing carpets, every month is a struggle.
Both of Frankie’s parents are alcoholics. She remembers two childhoods one sober and loving, one drunk and violent.
Sober: The girls are in the tub getting soaped up, and her mother is smiling and singing The Delfonics. “La la la la la la la la la means I love you,” she croons.
Drunk: Frankie isn’t sure what she’s done, but she’s getting yelled at and smacked. “She’d whip my ass and whip my ass,” she says today. “Everything my mom wasn’t supposed to say or do, when she was drunk, she did it.”
When she turns 3, Frankie goes to Head Start, the federally funded preschool for economically disadvantaged children, where she will learn her ABCs and catch up to the other kids. On the playground, she sees a boy on the swing set. It looks like fun.
Frankie heads into the play area, picks up a plastic toy and goes back outside. She walks up behind the other child and clocks him in the head.
“And I got on the swing and started swinging.”
The school calls Frankie’s father. He swears at the teachers. And that is the end of Frankie’s preschool education.
“I didn’t know better,” she says now. “No one had ever taught me to talk, to ask. All I knew is when you want something, you use violence.”
In 1992, the first New Mexico Kids Count report was published. It’s About Time Kids Count in New Mexico was released at an evening banquet attended by policymakers, scions of the business community and politicians including then Gov. Bruce King and his wife, Alice King, a champion of children’s programs.
The purpose of the report, which documented New Mexico’s place in national rankings of health, social and economic measures, was to call attention once again to the status of children and spur public policy toward change.
To hammer home the plight of the smallest and neediest, the dinner’s organizers used a gimmick: Diners were offered a choice of two meals roast sirloin with all the trimmings or a “reality meal” of vegetable soup and a bean and cheese burrito. Just like the New Mexico kids who lived in poverty, 1 in 4 dignitaries was asked to choose the more meager option.
Only five years had passed since the Kids in Crisis report, but the latest statistics, compiled by The Annie E. Casey Foundation, a philanthropy established by United Parcel Service founder James E. Casey, painted an even grimmer picture of New Mexico’s children. The state still trailed much of the nation 44th overall and lagged even further behind in some categories.
In the measure of children in poverty, for example, New Mexico had moved from fifth worst to third worst in the nation; 28 percent of its kids now lived in poverty. The percentage of children living with a single parent had jumped from 9 percent to 23 percent. Instances of abuse and child neglect had increased. So, too, had the birth rate among teens.