Just five days away from New Mexico's June gubernatorial primary, and as all candidates focus on improving public education as the key to addressing crippling poverty in the state, I've been thinking much more about our approaches to realistically addressing poverty and building the capacities of our economy as well as our people. The asset-development movement of the 1990s posited that increasing a low-income family's assets - not just its income - encourages greater long-term financial stability. I believe that this focus on both income and assets provides a pragmatic framework for mitigating the sobering reality of poverty in New Mexico.
According to recent numbers from New Mexico Voices for Children, 27% of children in the state live at or below the poverty level and 38% live in single-parent families. These numbers more accurately contextualize the fact that New Mexico is one of the poorest states in the nation and magnify the urgency to reassess and rethink how New Mexico approaches poverty - how we talk about it and how we conceptualize solutions. In general, Republicans and Democrats seem to agree that education is critical to encouraging career mobility and financial stability, as well as a host of other psycho-social indicators and, subsequently, that addressing early childhood education is a top policy priority. However, our work as a State on related policy and legislation has stalled largely as a result of partisan dissension and bickering about approach and appropriations, but also because I don't believe we're taking advantage of existing innovations.
Twenty years ago, Michael Sherraden's proposal to provide individual development accounts (IDA's) for those experiencing poverty catalyzed discussions and policy and what came to be known as the 'asset development movement'. Essentially, IDA's offer matching contributions and provide matching contributions and financial capability education. They are designed to build assets for post-secondary education or buying a house and have historically been funded through federal legislation. In the United States, states like Connecticut, Maine, Massachusets, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, California, Mississippi, Michigan, Nevada, Texas and Kansas offer children's savings accounts (CSA's) to encourage parents to begin saving early for their children's education (especially low-income families). Although the programs vary by state, the accounts are long-term savings accounts opened for a child when it is born and most states offer incentives for deposits and tax exemptions, deductions or deferrals on the earnings. Many offer to seed the accounts with an additional deposit and offer matching contributions as incentive to families to continue saving.
Here in New Mexico, the Prosperity Kids program, administered by non-profit Prosperity Works, has been developing and maintaining CSA's since 2014 as a pilot program. Prosperity Kids establishes accounts for children with an opening amount of $100, matches one-to-one up to $200 per year for 10 years, and allows parents to earn benchmark deposits for completing activities associated with child development and academic achievement. The funds are available for post-secondary education or stable transition into adulthood. The program incorporates both account funding and financial training, which has been shown to build wealth and create a college-going identity for children and their families. Additionally, the program establishes emergency savings accounts for parents to utilize for health expenses, car repairs, and other emergency situations so that there are available resources other than their children's accounts. The program works to open pathways and create opportunity for children and their families, while working to cultivate and encourage education as a critical tool in financial stability and asset formation.
CSA programs such as these are proven tools for combating poverty with bipartisan appeal and a wide range of benefits, including increasing school performance, saving for college, increasing financial literacy, establishing bank accounts that help families avoid predatory lenders, and creating emotional well-being. But, like anything else, CSA’s and the programs attached to them require a mix of public and private sector funding to realize the potential that they create. As we approach and move past the New Mexico June primary, I believe these are the kinds of solutions and systems that should be garnering much more attention and consideration from our gubernatorial (and congressional) candidates if they are honestly concerned with the state of children and the impoverished in New Mexico and reaching real solutions. It's time to start making real changes to secure the future of our children and our economies. The kids aren't alright.