Big Ideas: Children in the SouthwestThe Southwest has long represented the rich diversity of the United States, with families in the region dating back for centuries. Having been raised in El Paso, Texas, a high-growth city located at the mid-point of the 2,000 mile U.S.-Mexico border, I grew up thinking of the border as a place of great opportunity, enchantment, and grandeur, and yet, also a place of grinding poverty and inequality.

Former Census Bureau Director Steve Murdock reveals that kids in the Southwest region (defined here as the seven states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado) accounted for:

  • More than one-fourth of America’s child population in 2010;
  • More than 90 percent of the 2000-2010 increase in America’s child population;
  • More than half of America’s Hispanic child population;
  • Nearly one-third of American Indian and Alaskan Native children in the United States; and
  • More than 40 percent of America’s Asian child population.

As such, it is a place that holds the key for much of our nation’s future. We can do right by our children and take advantage of the region’s opportunity, enchantment, and grandeur, or we can fail them. It is our choice as to whether we make the proper investments and decisions about our collective future.

To do right by our children in the Southwest and around the country, we need to tackle the problems facing them with a proactive set of solutions that will allow them to reach their full potential. Unfortunately, while the problems have been rehashed for decades in the Southwest, as report after report repeats data about bi-national poverty, public health challenges, and issues relating to immigration, what is often missing are the solutions necessary to move the entire region forward, particularly for children.

For example, when I lived in El Paso and worked for the County, we heard repeatedly that El Paso had a higher tuberculosis rate than that of other states. What was desperately missing was a game plan and policy agenda to address the problem.

Similarly, when I worked for Senator Jeff Bingaman (NM), it was shocking to discover that a high-ranking federal official did not support coming together on a bipartisan policy agenda to improve the lives and conditions for people along the border due to some underlying racist perceptions. The federal official had adopted a position to purposely thwart progress for children and their families along the border out of fear that it might inspire increased immigration.

Fighting ignorance and prejudice is hard enough but sometimes it is just apathy or paralysis, as far too many children live in dire conditions without so much as a word by many policymakers. As an example, if you look at poverty rates, the seven Southwestern states have the following overall poverty rates versus those for children:

New Mexico
Overall Poverty %
Child Poverty %

So where, you might ask, is the hue and cry for immediate action to address this crisis? Between the presidential election and the contested House and Senate races across this country and throughout the Southwest region, is there a candidate calling to cut the nation’s or state’s child poverty rate or putting forth an agenda to do so?

Unfortunately, rather than progress and beyond silence, we know that some of the policy decisions that national and state leaders have enacted or are pursuing will clearly fail the next generation. As a result, in some cases, we are heading in the wrong direction. For example:

  • Texas’s cut of $5.2 billion out of its education budget this year has caused massive teacher layoffs and cuts to all educational programs, including the elimination of all extracurricular activities in some Rio Grande Valley schools
  • Texas, Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona rank 1st, 3rd, 4th, and 5th in the percentage of uninsured children in this country (Florida is 2nd worst) and have, at times, established unnecessary barriers to coverage for their most vulnerable children
  • Arizona has enacted anti-immigrant legislation, SB1070, that has created a climate of fear and instability among the immigrant families, and the Tucson School Board eliminated Mexican-American studies in their schools to comply with a state law imposed upon them

And it’s just not state policymakers whose decisions harm kids. Consider these federal government actions:

  • The U.S. Senate filibustered and blocked the enactment of the DREAM Act in 2010, which left well over 1 million immigrant children and youth, the majority who reside in the Southwest, in a state of limbo in this country
  • Our nation’s immigration laws consistently fail to consider the well-being of children and family unity, which has led to record-setting numbers of parents being deported, families torn apart, and children unnecessarily entering the child welfare system
  • Proposed federal budget cuts and block grants to children’s programs serving disadvantaged children will disproportionately harm the region’s children, as children of the Southwest are the most rapid growing population in the country and have poverty levels above the national average

And yet, if we are at all concerned about our nation’s future, it is critically important that we do better by children in the Southwest, as they account for 90 percent of the nation’s growth in the child population between 2000 and 2010. And as our country continues to reflect the diversity of the Southwest, we will need to ensure that our policies are working to advance the success of every single child in America, regardless of race, class, or ethnicity.

Rather than more fences and barriers, what we need are solutions and “bridges.” As Luis Alberto Urrea, an author born in Tijuana, Mexico, and raised in San Diego, California, said in an interview with Bill Moyers, “. . .my task, I think, all my life as a writer has been to find that common ground, that communication zone where we can talk. . . .”

“Bridges are better than fences,” Urrea adds. “The fence – the Mexican border is a physical metaphor for everything that separates human beings. And all you have to do is turn on any debate. . .and you’ll know that there are fences everywhere, on the right and left, white and black, gay and straight, male and female still, Christian, Muslim, Jew. The fence is everywhere. And any audience I speak to has border fences everywhere.”

It is with these challenges and opportunities in mind that First Focus chose to focus this year’s edition of Big Ideas on the Southwest. Like former Big Ideas publications, the papers in this series highlight new and innovative initiatives to improve child well-being. This year’s book includes over a dozen papers from state and national policy experts, elected officials, researchers, and advocates who address the changing demographics and identify new policy solutions, successful programs, and bridges that aim to establish common-ground for addressing then needs of children in the Southwest. Throughout the series, authors make the case for a wide range of policy solutions that are inclusive, culturally relevant, and family-focused.

Many good things are happening in the Southwest for children, and the lessons are applicable to the rest of the country as well. Ultimately, what is needed is a sustained and forward-thinking agenda, like those proposed in this book, so we don’t move two steps forward and then two steps back. The choices we make now are fundamental to our future.