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Children in Chaves County are experiencing the same types of challenges as other youth in New Mexico, with some significant concerns regarding educational gaps and child abuse, according to data released by New Mexico Voices for Children.

Most of the information available for the county in the 2021 Kids Count Data Book released Wednesday tracks closely with statewide rates for the 16 data points used to determine child well-being.

The data gathered from the U.S. Census Bureau and other federal and state agencies fall into four main categories: economic security, health indices, educational participation and attainment, and family and community support.

The advocacy group shares the information with state legislators, state agencies and courts to encourage policies and programs that will improve the lives of children.

For example, for the 2022 year, the group recommends economic relief to essential workers or people who were not helped in 2020 or 2021; programs to address food insecurity among children and families; greater investments in early childhood education and child care; extension of postpartum Medicaid coverage; and full funding of classroom programs that benefit children of color.

Most of the data for the state book comes from before the pandemic, with report authors indicating that the data offers just a “snapshot” of some situations and is only preliminary for some categories.

The group did gather data from within the state after the pandemic became a factor in March 2020 and led to business and school closures. While stating that the state’s response to the pandemic was in “many ways a success story” because financial and health care assistance was provided to children and families through various programs, the group also said that women and families of color suffered more severe impacts.

“More workers of color, who are more likely to be essential workers in low-wage jobs, lost employment income. Too many children, particularly students from low-income families and students of color, still don’t have high-speed internet at home, resulting in larger academic losses as a result of unfinished learning than white or more affluent students,” the report introduction stated.

Amber Wallin, deputy director, said that Chaves County’s outcomes are often tied closely to the fortunes of the oil and gas industry. While median income has increased in recent years, the types of issues that require dedicated funding and investments over a long period of time — such as educational resources — often lag behind other areas of the state that experience higher tax revenues and more robust economic growth on a regular basis.

“Those are things like poverty rates, child abuse rates that are linked to that,” said Wallin. “We know when parents have steady wages and good steady income that is a good predictor of how children are doing.”

She added that the pandemic had a dramatically different effect on people depending on their social circumstances. Wallin said higher income people tended to do even better during the pandemic, while working class people often fared worse. Increases in child abuse, she said, can be tied to economic and social stresses.

Some of the data highlights include the following information.

Chaves County had an average of 17,439, or about 26.8% of total population, from 2015 to 2019 who were 17 or younger. Of those children, 4,419 were between 0 and 4 years old.

Chaves County had 27% of all its residents and 19% of its children living in poverty from 2015 to 2019. Those were the exact same percentages as the state’s rates, but they are much higher than the national rates for the same period, which were 19% for overall residents and 13% for children. In the state, Chaves County ranked 20th for the percentage of youth (19%) living in high poverty areas. Twelve counties, including Eddy County, had 0% of youth in high-poverty areas.

Chaves County was projected to rank 13th in the state for child food insecurity in 2020, with 26% of children having limited or uncertain access to food. That rate was the same for the state. The U.S. rate was 20%. From 2015 to 2019, 22% of Chaves County households received assistance from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP).

From 2015 to 2019, 45% of youth ages 3-4 were not attending school and 6% of teens were not in school or working. That was several points below the national and state rates.

The truancy rate jumped dramatically once the pandemic hit, increasing to 44% for the Roswell Independent School District, up from 14% for 2019-2020. Chaves County also had one of the lowest rates of households headed by people holding high school diplomas. In Chaves County from 2015-2019, 21% of household heads did not have a high school diploma, compared to 13% in the state and 10% in the U.S.

Roswell Independent School District had 72% of students graduate within four years for the 2019-2020 year, but the rate plummeted to 62% for students identified as economically disadvantaged. The state graduation rate for 2020 was estimated at 77%.

Chaves County ranked 12th in the state for the percentage of babies born at a low birth weight in 2019. The rate was 8.8% compared to a state rate of 9.3% and a U.S. rate of 8.3%. Six percent of children in the county were without health care insurance in 2019, compared to 5.9% in the state.

A large percentage of county youth are enrolled on Medicaid, the federal insurance for low-income families. In October 2021, 13,374 people age 21 or younger were enrolled.

The rate of substantiated child abuse in fiscal year 2021 was put at 17.5 per 1,000 children, much higher than the state rate of 11.7. An estimated 84% of the abuse in the county was categorized as physical neglect.

The county also has a high teen birth rate, with 36.4 per 100,000 female teens having children in 2019. Only 10 counties had higher rates. The state rate was 24.4 and the U.S. rate was 17.4.

Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.