For decades, Mississippi and New Mexico have run neck and neck for the most damning status:  worst place in the country to be a child.

“Thank God for Mississippi” — that’s the tongue-in-cheek refrain from residents of other states relieved their home is not ranked 50th for child well-being. Long-beleaguered Mississippi could always be relied upon to take the last spot.

No more.

New Mexico was in 50th place in the 2018 Kids Count rankings, released June 27.

How does a state climb off the bottom rung? Can New Mexico take its cue from Mississippi and move up a few notches itself, by next year?

What does 50th mean?

The ranking reflects high rates of child poverty, hunger, unemployment, child and teen deaths, substance abuse and high school dropout rates. Many children in low-ranking states grow up with parents and caregivers who lack high school diplomas, stable jobs and livable wages, in communities where discrimination prevents upward mobility, and has for generations.

Rankings come from an analysis of 16 different measures for child well-being, in the areas of education, economic well-being, health, and family and community.

New Mexico falls below the national average in every marker.

Here are some of the ways that Mississippi improved children’s lives, according to Kids Count.

“New Mexico has been 49th for many years, so it’s not a dramatic shift,” said Laura Speer, associate director for policy reform and advocacy at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which issues the Kids Count rankings. “It is probably more about improvements in Mississippi, than it had to do with New Mexico.”

In particular, Mississippi has seen a marked improvement in its education ranking, moving up four spots to its current rank of 44, compared to New Mexico’s 50. Education was the driving force behind Mississippi’s ascent, and overall it showed improvement in 13 of the 16 indicators used to measure child well-being.

Across the same markers, New Mexico only improved in five. It scored lower in nine of the measures. A Searchlight analysis of the rankings revealed many areas in which New Mexico could improve.

“The fact that the state has got the highest child poverty rate is not a small thing,” noted Cynthia Guy, vice president of research, evaluation, evidence and data at the Annie E. Casey foundation. “The economic needs for families in New Mexico are great. The ability for them to be able to work, and work a job that pays well, to me that is where investment needs to go.”

In the same areas in which New Mexico has shown minimal progress, Mississippi made leaps and bounds. For example, while Mississippi’s parental employment increased by 5 percentage points in the last year, New Mexico’s improved by only 1 point. The child poverty rate in Mississippi improved by three points, while New Mexico stayed the same.

Christian was born and raised in the Land of Enchantment and has spent his career thus far exploring the stories of the people who call it home. Christian was accepted into the Dow Jones News Fund internship...