A resident of New Mexico does not have to look south to Mexico, east to the many dysfunctional states north and south of the Sahara Desert, and farther east to the disturbed states of the Middle East and South Asia to understand a failed state. That resident lives in one. By almost all measures of well-being, New Mexico ranks near the bottom of the states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. If it is not a failed state yet, it is a failing one.
Its economy is third-world, predominantly oriented toward agriculture, construction, oil and gas, tourism, and, in some places, retirement/assisted living/health care. These industries employ thousands of people, but stratify them between many with no or low skills, low wages, and few benefits; and a few with high skills, high salaries and many benefits. Most of these industries, as well as the array of retail businesses which support them, are slow-growth industries. Were it not for federal installations—Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories, and White Sands Proving Grounds—and their employment of highly educated and well-compensated professionals, the economy would be far weaker. Only Albuquerque, an anomaly in the state, manages to concentrate enough talented workers (many attracted from abroad) to grow steadily.
As a result, New Mexico ranks in the bottom ten-percent in per-capita federal tax revenues (just over $4200) and in the top ten-percent in per-capita federal spending (just over $11,350). The per-capita difference of over $7,100 is a clear sign that New Mexico is a dependent of the federal government, and many of its citizens are dependents of the state government—indeed, both governments reflect and reinforce a culture of dependency in this state.
New Mexico ranks similarly in many other ways. In education, proficiency in the basics of literacy and numeracy straddles fifty percent, only two of three public-school students graduate, approximately four in ten high-school graduates who go to college require remedial courses, and employers report dissatisfaction with their employee’s work abilities, attitudes, and habits. Readily available but not quite current data on higher education show nothing better. UNM and NMSU graduation rates from 2002 through 2008 averaged 43%. The graduation rates of DACC from 1999 through 2004 average 9%, with a steady decline from the high of 11.1% in 1999 to the low of 5.7% in 2004. Schools of education do not prepare teachers to teach the subjects for which they are nominally responsible, and the state lacks a coherent, comprehensive, cumulatively structured curriculum for them to teach.
In health, the state has well-above-average rates of alcoholism, drug use, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease; and high rates of pregnancies involving unwed, commonly teenage, mothers, with nearly three-quarters of all births Medicaid-funded. Domestic and street violence is endemic. Since many Medicaid-funded mothers are children having children, the cycle of poverty, poor education, and poor health continues. Yet the health-care system often provides only mediocre and sometimes life-threatening services, with major hospitals often releasing patients to other health-care facilities with serious, yet unreported, hospital-acquired diseases or wounds, especially in the elderly; and with some facilities failing to provide the necessities, even for daily dental or routine bodily hygiene.
Private medical care may be no better. I have heard many horror stories about basic medical care from patients and health-care professionals in office, clinical, skilled, acute-care, and rehabilitation facilities. Yes, even office visits can be hazardous to your health. My favorite—if that is the right word reflecting my empathy for a “brother”—is a horror story which he tells about his treatment by a local urologist. At the urologist’s clinic, one nurse removed his hospital-installed catheter in the morning, and another re-inserted a clinic-supplied catheter in the afternoon. Contrary to professional practice, this nurse made no assessment, selected a larger catheter, and lubricated it with a jelly containing a chemical to which this man was highly allergic. In forcibly inserting the catheter despite his complaints, the nurse cauterized and lacerated his urethra, and caused extreme pain and unstaunched bleeding for 30 hours. When the man later complained, the urologist defended his nurse, “fired” him, and hindered his search for another urologist.
New Mexico is not unique in having these problems, only notable for its extreme rankings reflecting real indifference to the general welfare of its citizens. Other states, mostly Southern or mostly rural, have the same third-world-country syndrome. But New Mexico distinguishes itself in being the only state in the union with a population with a majority of minorities: Indians, Hispanics, and others. The state’s problems are concentrated in Indian and Hispanic populations and have continued for generations.
The implication is obvious. New Mexico’s leaders, either those who are Hispanic themselves or those who represent large numbers, if not majorities, of Hispanics, have done and are doing little or nothing on a scale suitable to remediate the depth and persistence of poverty, poor education, and poor health. Like my friend, they get little regard and little respect. The reason is equally obvious. New Mexico’s leaders reflect the prevailing culture of social conservatism which disregards complaint and resists change, even for the better. The conservative population tolerates a little social tinkering, but it refuses to demand major changes which might ameliorate, if not remedy, these social problems.
Most state efforts have not addressed the problems, though state leaders justify their efforts as doing so. State-funded construction projects—the Spaceport is atypical only in size—provide short-term, low-wage jobs, but they do not address the longer-term problems of the third-world syndrome. State relaxation or elimination of regulations of agriculture or oil and gas industries increase corporate profits but not employment; so, too, would capping or even lowering the state minimum hourly wage.
More grievous are state educational policies affecting student testing, teacher evaluation, and school choice, among others, but not constructively addressing the essence of education: the transfer of information and skills from a teacher with mastery of, and commitment to, the subject, to students encouraged and expected to learn. New Mexico’s leaders are afraid to investigate the (non-) relationship between college teacher training programs and the subjects which their graduates must teach, presumably according to a state-mandated curriculum. The problem is that New Mexico lacks curriculums in any meaningful sense of the term: comprehensive, coherent, cumulative, and challenging. Most of the state’s elected leaders know little about education, and the well-meaning ones are distracted by the blind rage for purportedly business-like approaches and solutions. (As we are learning, the Governor and her interim Secretary of Education are importing and implementing such approaches which likely recommend themselves because they promise to advance political ambitions and lucrative careers later and elsewhere. More on this matter and their agenda in a future blog.)
These educational failures doom New Mexico to a future worse than continued mediocrity. The modern world demands an increasingly higher level of educational achievement; New Mexico’s schools and colleges, public and private, graduate students increasingly less prepared for it. The disparity means not only more poverty, poorer education, and poorer health, but also fewer competent people and fewer resources to address them. Many hope and grasp for quick fixes, but, as they hope and grasp, fixes of any and all kinds elude them.
The culture which comforts so many New Mexicans will condemn them to discomforts which they cannot imagine now and will not understand in the future. They will not realize that a culture which does not value excellence in education and employment will not enable them to anticipate and adjust to, much less benefit from, the changes coming to the state and the country. New Mexico will remain a ward of the United States, and, if a slow-growing economy requires government economies, the state may find itself more quickly, and irreversibly, impoverished, the Haiti of the continent.