As a physician, I know that when you have a cure for an ailment, you use it. You don’t waste time, because you know that delay only makes the condition worse. New Mexico has a problem. We’re at the bottom of nearly every indicator of child well-being. We know what works and we’re actually giving the right medicine to a few lucky kids. But most are not getting the cure, even though we know it works and we have the resources to get it to them.
Kids need more than health care. They need a comprehensive set of services that promote healthy development. High-quality early care and education is the prescription. Services like home visiting reduce the incidence of child abuse, increase the time between subsequent births, and improve parental involvement in their children’s educations. High-quality care and preschool programs like NM Pre-K improve children’s readiness for school, which means they are less likely to start out behind. When kids start school on the right track, their outcomes are vastly improved, not just in K-12 but beyond.
Currently only a fraction of our children are getting the preventive medicine of home visiting and high-quality child care, and preschool/pre-K. And because we don’t offer enough prevention, the state spends much more money down the line fixing problems when they become a full-blown illness: child abuse and neglect, low graduation rates, high teen pregnancy rates, drug use and alcohol abuse. The list of social ills—all of which can be prevented—goes on.
While our elected leaders say they understand the problem and know about the cure, they aren’t giving it in the sufficient dosage. They add a few million dollars a year to these program budgets as if that is adequate treatment for such a widespread epidemic. While they cautiously phase in funding, and a few more children get the treatment they need each year, the vast majority of our children are left behind. These children are denied the opportunities that will lead them to success.
Childhood cannot be put on hold. The development that occurs within the first five years of life will set that child on a course—it will determine whether that child will have the cognitive, social, emotional, and behavioral skills they need to reach their full potential or if they will struggle and fall behind. Early childhood presents a finite window of opportunity. While we’re slowly phasing in funding, our children are growing up and starting school unprepared and already behind. This means we’re allowing another generation of children to grow up lacking the education and skills they will need for 21st century jobs. This means we’re telling some children they can’t have the cure available to other kids.
As a physician, I take an oath to provide the care to patients who need it. Our elected leaders also take an oath to serve the citizens of this state. It’s time for them to step up and do what is right for our most vulnerable citizens—our youngest children. I realize the budget is tight, but we could find the money if we had the political will. We could roll back tax cuts for the state’s highest income earners, or we could use a small portion of the income from the state’s multi-billion-dollar permanent fund. But when we fail to make the investments that will keep our children and our state healthy, we end up paying the price. And the price is always higher—and the treatment less effective—when we’ve let the illness go unchecked for too long.