New Mexico has always lagged at the bottom of the country’s economic ratings: In 2006, 18.5 percent of the population was living below the poverty level, giving the state a bigger proportion of working poor than any other. It’s also 46th out of 50 in the number of high school graduates and the number of college graduates per capita.
But at least as of 2007, the state was in an upswing, with overall unemployment down to 3.8 percent, and the average income among the 10th fastest-growing in the country. As the manufacturing center for all manner of things, from computer chips to mattresses to specialty running shoes, Albuquerque leads the state’s economy. And the city where Microsoft was founded (then Bill Gates and Paul Allen moved back to Seattle to be close to their families) is doing better at fostering technology development these days, as home to a range of tech specialists catering to Sandia National Labs and an aerospace manufacturing park growing on the west side. On the horizon: a solar farm that would produce electricity for 300,000 homes and, under the direction of the New Mexico Space Commission, the development of spacecraft by private companies at the New Mexico Spaceport south of Albuquerque.
Significant profits from coal, copper, oil, and natural-gas extraction—most in the southern part of the state, as well as in the northwest—actually put the state economy well in the black in 2006. That’s the big money, but the agricultural sector, from apple orchards along the Rio Grande to beef jerky from the numerous cattle ranches, contributes a decent amount to the pot. And Santa Fe’s arts sector shouldn’t be overlooked—galleries post sales of $200 million every year, though they’re criticized for sending much of that money right back out of the state to artists who live and work elsewhere. Finally, Governor Richardson has been actively courting the film industry, leading to a boom in movies shot against the dramatic backdrops around Albuquerque and Santa Fe — now referred to locally as “Tamalewood.”
Even if the economic situation isn’t ideal, it’s nothing New Mexicans aren’t used to—low income has been the norm for so long that a large segment of the population is, if not content with, at least adapted to eking out a living from almost nothing (the median family income is only around $37,000). In this respect, the state hasn’t lost its frontier spirit at all.
© Zora O'Neill from Moon Santa Fe, Taos & Albuquerque, 2nd edition