Data: Poverty rate in state at lowest since 2009

Feeble drop leaves state as third-poorest in nation, behind Louisiana and Mississippi

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New Mexico's poverty rate has declined slightly, but the state remains among the nation's poorest, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Median household income grew about 3 percent statewide in 2016, in line with the rest of the country. But the state's child poverty rate ticked up a bit to become the nation's highest.

Together, the data shows a state riding a national recovery after what some analysts have described as a "lost decade" of economic decline. But economists and other observers say New Mexico has done little to shake its standing as one of the most impoverished states and that it remains vulnerable to regressing in the next economic downturn, whenever it arrives.

"We had some improvement in these numbers and that's a good thing," said Jim Peach, a professor of economics at New Mexico State University. "But have we changed the basic picture of New Mexico? No."

New Mexico previously ranked as the second-poorest state in the country, with only Mississippi counting a larger proportion of its residents living in poverty. In 2016, however, New Mexico's poverty rate fell for a third straight year and dropped below Louisiana's.

New Mexico still has a larger share of its children living in poverty than any other state. The child poverty rateincreased to 30 percent last year from 28.6 percent in 2015.

That did not come as a surprise to Allen Sanchez, president and chief executive officer of CHI St. Joseph's Children, a Catholic charity that serves low-income families.

Sanchez said many younger parents who can move from New Mexico for jobs elsewhere are doing so. Those left behind are among the poorest, he said.

"That's the population that is struggling," he said.

Groups like his argue these numbers demand the state spend more on early childhood education and services for young families, such as home visiting programs in which social workers assist new parents.

But overall, the new data shows New Mexico's poverty rate at its lowest since 2009. The state's poverty ratewas the nation's fifth-highest at the time.

Other indicators, such as an unemployment rate that has stubbornly ranked among the country's highest, suggest that New Mexico has lagged behind the rest of the country in emerging from the recession.

Just as important, the new data on income and poverty shows New Mexico has the highest rate in the nation of people who are employed but still live in poverty. On the plus side, some New Mexicans are enjoying the upswing in the national economy.

And that is to be expected, Peach said.

"When the nation does well, we tend to do better," he said.

The state economy relies in large part on commodities with a national market -- oil, natural gas, Intel computer chips and green chile.

So, while the state's unemployment rate has improved, Peach said, New Mexico still relies too heavily on selling commodities with prices that fluctuate at the whim of national and international markets.

And large numbers of New Mexicans still rely on government initiatives, such as the program commonly known as food stamps, Peach said.

New Mexico has seen government payrolls shrink in recent years while private-sector employment has grown. Conservatives in particular have argued such a shift is needed in a state where the federal government plays a particularly large role in the economy.

"To the extent that New Mexico is becoming somewhat less reliant on government, this is a good thing and would make us more like the nation at large," said Paul Gessing, president of the conservative Rio Grande Foundation.

But even in this respect, New Mexico has more work to do, he said.

"We haven't done much policy-wise to sustain this trend," Gessing said, pointing to tax reform and outlawing fees on workers who do not join a union. He said this legislation would boost business, but it remains controversial at the state Capitol.

Most Democrats say the movement Gessing favors is aimed at breaking unions. They also say it's fair to charge a fee to workers who don't join a union because they share in the raises and benefits brought by better contracts.

Others argue that the sort of jobs supported by government contractors and agencies pay better than service sector jobs that have largely filled the gap.

At the national level, the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute said the declining poverty rate is attributable to rising employment, along with more cities and states increasing the minimum wage and support of programs such as food stamps.

The annual report comes from the relatively new American Community Survey, which is based on detailed questionnaires sent to samples of the population.

Many New Mexicans are still recovering from what the Great Recession wiped out from their retirement savings and mortgages, said Jill Geltmaker, vice president of strategic initiatives at Prosperity Works, a nonprofit organization based in Albuquerque that works with low-income families to build financial security.

Many New Mexicans who turned to high-interest lenders and credit cards as the economy sagged may still be paying off debts, Geltmaker said.

"Yes, median income has gone up. But all the wealth that was lost takes longer to rebuild," she said.

And building that wealth is key, she said, if families are to advance economically or at least prepare themselves for the next downturn.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican­.com. Follow him on Twitter @andrewboxford.

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