ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - It wasn't so long ago that David Hutchinson spent a month sleeping under a bridge while his wife and young daughter spent their nights at a domestic violence shelter.
But this wasn't a case of domestic violence. The couple simply had no choice. There were just no shelters in Phoenix with room for another homeless family, and their top priority was finding a safe place for their daughter.
The family is one of many in the U.S. that have been trying to raise children in the face of joblessness and homelessness. An annual survey released Monday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows the number of children living in poverty increased to 23 per cent in 2011, after the recession.
The Southwest has been hit particularly hard. New Mexico, for the first time, has slipped to worst in the nation when it comes to child well-being. More than 30 per cent of children in the state were living in poverty in 2011 and nearly two-fifths had parents who lacked secure employment, according to this year's Kids Count survey.
Nevada is ranked No. 48, followed by Arizona. Mississippi, which has traditionally held last place, made slight improvements in early childhood education while reading and math proficiency for some students increased, putting the state at No. 49.
Overall, the report shows there have been gains in education and health nationally, but since 2005, there have been serious setbacks when it comes to the economic well-being of children.
"There's little doubt that things are getting worse," said Kim Posich, executive director of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. "Aside from the fact the New Mexico economy has been so slow to turn around, the systems that generally serve people who are the working poor and suddenly lose their jobs or face greater hardship, all those systems have been strained beyond the max."
In Arizona, charities and government programs were cut during the recession, making it more difficult for families to get by and rebuild, said Dana Wolfe Naimark of the Children's Action Alliance in Phoenix.
"So many things were slashed just when people needed it the most," she said. "That is a key policy issue that we do have choices over. We can find ways to rebuild that investment. It's not OK to just throw up our hands and say, 'We can't.'"
According to the Kids Count report, a lingering concern is the effect of unemployment on children, particularly long-term unemployment. Researchers found that more than 4 million workers were unemployed for more than six months, and more than 3 million were without work for a year or more.
David Hutchinson and his family eventually ended up in Albuquerque. He has been looking for work for months. Finally, he landed a job just this week with a contractor who installs fire suppression systems.
"If I wasn't so crippled, I'd be doing backflips," he said, pointing to the rod and pins in his forearm, an injury that ended his career in the U.S. Navy.
His wife, Chelsea, said she knows her husband is ready to put aside any pain because the prospect of their family being able to move from Joy Junction, the shelter where they have been staying since December, hinges on a regular income.
William and Elimar Roper are in the same boat. They and their four children have been at the shelter for about a year. William just landed a job in the kitchen and Elimar has graduated from the shelter's recovery program, which helps those addicted to drugs or alcohol.
"We're happy because we've upgraded from being homeless to something that can help us stabilize. It's the first step," Elimar Roper said.
William Roper served in the U.S. Army for nine years and did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. After the military, he worked as a janitor and then lost his job. The family's savings soon ran out, leaving them homeless.
The Kids Count report shows the percentage of children whose parents don't have secure employment has been increasing. That's more than one-third of children in each of the four states at the bottom of the Kids Count list.
"Growing up in poverty, it just has these terrible repercussions and you see these associations with much lower rates of high school graduation, lower performance overall in school, much lower rates of college attendance and the cycle perpetuates," said Curtis Skinner, director of Family Economic Security at the National Center for Children in Poverty.
Skinner said the centre's research is showing a troubling trend in the aftermath of the recession: Poverty rates are rising in what used to be the middle class, in two-parent households and in families where parents have college educations.
While there is a lag in the Kids Count data, officials in New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada believe some of their numbers will start to turn around in the coming years thanks to investments in education, particularly pre-kindergarten programs.
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez has pushed for doubling pre-K funding and funneling more money to early literacy and high school graduation efforts.
"Clearly, doing things the way they've always been done hasn't worked for our kids," said Enrique Knell, a spokesman for the governor. "And reform efforts must include ending the practice of setting our children up for failure by passing them on to the next grade level when they can't read."
The well-being of their children has been the motivating factor for both the Hutchinson and Roper families. They want something better for their kids, and they say things are starting to turn around.
"Finally, being to the point of stabilizing and being able to get the kids out of this environment, that's a good feeling," Elimar Roper said.
Kids Count Data Book: http://www.aecf.org/MajorInitiatives/KIDSCOUNT.aspx
National Center for Children in Poverty: http://www.nccp.org/
New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty: http://nmpovertylaw.org/
Joy Junction: http://www.joyjunction.org/
Associated Press writers Michelle Rindels in Las Vegas and Cristina Silva in Phoenix contributed to this report.
Follow Susan Montoya Bryan on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/susanmbryanNM