Alibi V.25 No.4 • Jan 28-Feb 3, 2016 

Opinion

The Kids are Not Alright

Study finds N.M. children at the bottom of the poverty list

Poverty

New Mexico's no slouch when it comes to natural resources. We're the sixth largest net supplier of energy in the nation, our mineral mines make up a good chunk of our yearly income and our sand dunes are considered top-notch in the secret-hiding industry. But there's one resource that's never mentioned in discussions of our economic state: people.

Back when the Industrial Revolution was still in diapers, the world was facing the problem of having too many laborers and not enough button pushers. The entire working class focus had to be shifted from how many times you can swing a hammer to how long you can stand still on the factory line.

Today, we're facing a similar issue as our world quickly moves toward virtualization. Physical resources (though obviously important) are already taking a backseat to non-physical ones, meaning it won't be oil and minerals filling up our bank accounts, but ideas and innovative thinking.

And to have those kinds of resources, you have to have tip-top brains at hand. We've done a pretty good job of attracting intelligent people to our state with our cool art scenes and beautiful landscapes, but to really make a difference we need a local source. Here's the thing: smart people don't grow on trees. I'll spare you the vicious details, but will let you know that they grow from little bitty babies.

This thought was running through my mind as I stood on the gleaming tiles of the state capitol last week listening to a handful of speakers explaining how truly fucked the children of our state are. New Mexico Voices for Children was holding a press conference to release the results of the 2015 Kids Count study.

The star of the show was the depressing news that the state ranked absolute last in the nation when it comes to child poverty. And overall child well-being—calculated by assessing multiple factors such as income, school enrollment, death and drug abuse rates, availability of health services and others—was ranked 49th in the nation.

These ugly figures tie directly into our awful state education system. According to a study by WalletHub analyzing the best and worst states to send your kids to school, New Mexico was featured in the bottom five states for lowest math scores, lowest reading scores and highest dropout rate. Our overall rank was 44th.

Largely due to the national attention surrounding the WalletHub study, education worries are at the forefront of local political discussions this year. Gov. Martinez happened to be giving her State of the State address the same day as the Voices for Children press conference, announcing planned education initiatives which include raising the starting wage for teachers and expanding a teacher mentorship program. She also made the symbolic gesture of announcing that state employees will be granted leave to be able to attend parent-teacher conferences. And the following day, House Democrats in the legislature filed a bill proposing a funneling of funds from the state's Land Grant Permanent Fund—a resource established upon our entry into statehood which provides funds gathered from oil and gas production done on public lands for use in public schools—into early childhood education programs. The bill will be up for voter consideration in the fall.

These are all good signs of a paradigm shift, but they’re attacking the beast from the ass end and ignoring the source of the problem: the connection between poor academic performance and poverty. We already know that poor nutrition and lack of stimulation are detrimental to child development. To pretend that these problems will magically disappear by throwing money at them is just lazy.

Making poverty disappear sounds easy enough (3D-printed gold bars?), but any real effort by our leaders to deal with it in a positive way doesn't seem forthcoming. Obviously, it’s not an issue that will be cleared up with a flick of the wrist, but the omission of even a comment about the poverty figure during the State of the State speech was distressing. Bad education is a symptom of poverty, not the other way around. School reform might have a part to play, however, if policy makers will start giving attention to providing children with a stronger social structure by strengthening community outreach programs, giving children a safe place to hang out when not on campus or introducing more social workers into the system.

Of course, I'm just a lowly reporter, and my idealistic view of a world without poverty could just be naivety. But if there's ever going to be any real chance of turning this terrible position we find ourselves in around, it will be in getting the people out there who are smarter than me to address the problem and start looking for real solutions.

That old adage, “children are our future,” should be coming to mind now. Ignoring the child poverty problem means a future of constantly treading water, or worse, drowning.