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New Mexico's Truth: Stunning Vistas And Child Poverty?

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The New Mexico True campaign by the state's tourism department showcases activities and landmarks in New Mexico.

New Mexico offers stunning ski slopes, high desert vistas and cultural sites, all sights you'll see in the state's tourism campaign called "New Mexico True."

But the state also has the highest child poverty rate in the nation — a truth that an advocacy group highlighted with its parody campaign, "New Mexico Truth."

In the original video, you can see footage of children making strands of chili peppers and frolicking at the White Sands National Monument. It's the same image you'll see in the parody campaign — but with a different message.

"This is New Mexico, where we celebrate our unique cuisine and turn a blind eye to our hungry children. New Mexico. Truth," that ad says.

The parody was created by Allen Sanchez, who runs a Catholic children's organization with the biggest home visiting program in the state.

"In New Mexico we have an epidemic," he says. "So if you imagine a potter, and while the pot is being formed, while that clay is wet, that's like the child's brain as it's spinning and they're forming that clay. But in New Mexico before that clay can harden, we like to poke holes in it. So imagine this beautiful pot, holes being poked in it. Those are adverse child experiences."

These experiences include poverty. Many experts see early childhood education such as home visiting and pre-kindergarten as the remedy. Sanchez is pushing to increase early childhood programs for that reason.

"How can we live knowing that this is the state that has the highest rate of children in poverty? The third highest in hunger? The worst graduation rate? All of this is connected, and if we do nothing then we're failing, and we're failing ourselves," he says.

Monique Jacobson, who was the tourism secretary when the New Mexico True campaign was created, was not amused by the campaign. She now runs the state's child welfare agency.

"I found it to be heartbreaking," Jacobson says. "I do think it's critical that we draw attention to what's going on with our children and our families here in New Mexico, but I think there's a way to do it that's actionable and that's positive, and unfortunately I think they did it in a way that was destructive and divisive."

Jacobson was tasked with turning around an agency facing high staff turnover and a string of high-profile child abuse cases. It's a job made even tougher, she says, by an anemic state budget gutted by plummeting oil and gas revenues.

"It's critical that we find ways to diversify our economy here in New Mexico, and that's something that the tourism industry — particularly the New Mexico True campaign — has had incredible success doing," she says.

No one is happy about the status of New Mexico's children. In fact, state lawmakers have steadily increased funding for early childhood programs.

"Is it enough? It may not be," says Rachel Gudgel, director of the state's Legislative Education Study Committee. "Are we being thoughtful and are we really trying to prioritize those programs? Absolutely."

But that funding isn't enough, Sanchez says. He says too much funding has gone to tax cuts and to tax credits for industries that haven't helped the state's economy. He plans to keep up the pressure by rolling out another series of ads this summer.

"New Mexico Truth is just getting started," he says.

Copyright 2016 KUNM-FM. To see more, visit KUNM-FM.

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