Commentary: The Voices for Children/Annie E. Casey report “Kids Count” has always generated a great deal of media attention especially with the Legislature repeatedly considering tapping the permanent fund for pre-K and other childhood programs. But with the launch of Searchlight New Mexico and its reporting arm dedicating itself to reporting on the issue of childhood poverty, the report (and New Mexico’s poor results) are generating even more attention than normal.
The problem is, while pre-K is often viewed as a panacea, if you read their own report, the laser-like focus on pre-K seems hard to justify. Instead, it would seem that Voices and the left-wing advocacy community should be looking seriously at ways to reform New Mexico’s economy.
Briefly, going through each category: according to the report, New Mexico is 49th in “Economic Well-Being.” We at the Rio Grande Foundation say that the best “welfare” program is a job. New Mexico’s high unemployment rate and low workforce participation rates are huge problems. Economists generally agree that more economic freedom (which New Mexico also performs poorly in) would help bring more jobs to our State.
New Mexico is 50th in “Education.” In this part of the Index, pre-K is essentially a category. That is one way to get the outcome you want. New Mexico is not Finland, but it is worth noting that in the high-performing Scandanavian Country children don’t begin formal school until they turn 7. Also, the research on pre-K is hardly as convincing as the left would have us believe. At the Rio Grande Foundation we’ve focused on improving our existing school system and making sure existing resources are being used effectively. The poor performance of our K-12 system should definitely give policymakers pause when they consider adding additional years of schooling on top of what already exists.
In terms of “Health,” New Mexico comes in 37th which is actually our State’s best performance area. I question whether many of these areas couldn’t also be improved simply through stronger economic growth and more jobs, but it is hard to say exactly how to address this.
Finally there is “Family and Community.” Interestingly, last year when the Foundation’s Research Director Dowd Muska specifically called out single parent families as an issue he received a swift rebuke from Sharon Kayne of NM Voices. There are no “easy” solutions for the breakdown of the family unit, but again a stronger economy, welfare programs that don’t encourage single parenthood would seem to be helpful.
Ultimately, while “Kids Count” has a lot of good information, we don’t really need it to know that New Mexico is a deeply-challenged state. The debate over whether to rely on even more government spending and interventions or whether to allocate existing resources more efficiently and remove obstacles to economic growth is far more important than yet another reinforcement of New Mexico’s failed policies.