National study shows Alabama children making some gains, but child poverty on the rise
by Eddie Burkhalter
Jun 24, 2013 | 6072 views |  0 comments | 149 149 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Alabama has made gains in children's healthcare and education, according to an annual report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. (Star file photos)
Alabama has made gains in children's healthcare and education, according to an annual report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. (Star file photos)
Alabama is making promising strides in providing for children’s health and education, but increasing poverty continues to threaten the state’s most vulnerable residents.

Those are the findings of the 2013 Kids Count data report released today by the Annie E. Casey foundation, which found there were 40,000 more Alabama children living in poverty in 2011 than in 2005. Poverty is defined as income below $22,811 for a family of four in 2011. That figure is an increase of 3 percent during those years, and five percent more than the national average in 2011.

Using four indicators, the report ranks states in the areas of economic well-being, education, health and family and community. Alabama’s scores mirrored those of the nation as a whole, with gains in health and education, mixed results in family and community and worsening figures in measures of economic well-being.

The state moved up one spot this year to 44th in the overall ranking.

Alabama’s teen birth rate dropped by 15 percent from 2005 to 2010, with 44 births per 1,000. The rate of high school students not graduating within four years fell by about 20 percent during those years, to 28 percent in 2010.

Nationally, the teen birth rate improved by 6 percent from 2005 to 2010, with 34 births per 1,000. The national rate of high school students not graduating within four years improved by 5 percent, with 22 percent such students in 2010.

Those improvements show that existing programs are working, said Linda Tilly, director of the Montgomery nonprofit Voices for Alabama’s Children.

But Tilly is concerned that worsening poverty statistics could threaten those very improvements.

“I think that we should be concerned. Poverty does highly correlate and track with health and education and other outcomes for children,” Tilly said. “I think that what happens in the future will depend on how we, as a state, and local communities, neighborhoods and churches, weigh in and help children who live in poverty.”

Alabama’s health care

“Thus far, we’ve been doing a good job providing access to healthcare for poor children,” Tilly said.

In January 1998 Alabama became the first state to have its federal Children’s Health Insurance Program plan approved. Called All-Kids, the program provides low-cost healthcare for children in low-income families who make too much to qualify for Medicaid.

Alabama saw a 3 percent drop in the number of children without health insurance from 2008 to 2011, according to the report, but funding for All-Kids has recently been threatened.

Last year, Gov. Robert Bentley tried to cut the program by limiting eligibility from 300 percent of poverty to 200 percent, which would have dropped about 15,800 kids from receiving health insurance. His request was denied by the federal government because the 2010 Affordable Care Act does not allow states to change eligibility standards for children.

Anniston pediatrician Dr. Carla Thomas said that thanks to All-Kids and Medicaid, she rarely sees a child in her office without health insurance.

Child and teen deaths dropped in Alabama from 43 per 100,000 in 2005 to 37 in 2010, the report found. The number of low-birthweight babies and the prevalence of teen drug or alcohol abuse also decreased slightly throughout the state.

“It means that we’re doing a better job at providing health care, as well as education,” Thomas said. “Prevention is just as important as intervention.”

Education matters

Alabama public schools are doing something right, according to the report’s findings, with improvements in each of the four indicators.

There were also moderate gains in the number of children who attend preschool in Alabama.

Eric Mackey, director of School Superintendents of Alabama, attributes that improvement to the state’s recent investments in pre-K and early childhood programs.

“There’s no doubt we’re doing a better job than we have in the past and getting kids ready to learn to read,” Mackey said. “I think that’s a skill that we used to miss.”

Bentley earlier this year asked for an additional $12 million to expand the state’s pre-K program. The program was funded at $19 million this year, and serves about 3,900 4-year-olds.

The number of Alabama fourth-graders not proficient in reading fell from 78 percent to 69 percent from 2005 to 2011, according the report.

Mackey credits state Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice for his recent work in repurposing reading coaches in the Alabama Reading Initiative into instructional coaches.

“They’re still reading coaches, but it’s so much more than just reading. It’s about working with those early learning skills, and working with kids beyond the third grade. It used to be they could only work with kids below third grade,” Mackey said.

In another improvement, the number of Alabama high school students who did not graduate on time fell from 27 percent to 22 percent between the 2005-06 school year and the 2009-10 school year.

“That’s another case of being able to focus on where the most need is,” Mackey said, describing how school administrators discovered that fewer than 20 high schools in the state had more than half of those non-graduates.

The problem was myriad, Mackey said, but educators found that hundreds of students had transferred schools often, and in those breaks the students failed to accumulate enough credits to graduate.

“They needed better advisement, so that’s one of things that we focused on,” Mackey said.

More work remains

Alabama is still crawling out of the recession, the report shows, with worsening numbers in three of the four indicators in the economic well-being category.

Along with the increase in children living in poverty, the number of children whose parents lack secure employment rose from 30 percent in 2008 to 35 percent last year.

And children living in households with a high housing-cost burden increased by 30 percent from 2005 to 2011. There were 394,000 such children in Alabama last year.

Parents who spend more on housing have less to spend on other needs like food, clothing and health care.

Craig Baab, a senior policy fellow for the Montgomery non-profit Alabama Appleseed, said poverty isn’t something easily addressed.

“It’s not like there is one thing you can do and get rid of poverty. There are so many layers you have to work with,” Baab said.

An area that hits the poor particularly hard is payday lending practices, Babb said.

One recent bill in the Alabama Legislature would have capped the maximum interest rate that can be charged on payday loans at 36 percent.

“The maximum is now 456 percent, and it’s clearly aimed directly at low-income people,” Baab said.

The bill had broad support, Baab said, including from Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, but it died in the last legislative session. Supporters say the fight isn’t over.

Kristina Scott, director of the Birmingham nonprofit Alabama Poverty Project, said that advocates have a much better idea of the kinds of interventions needed to help children living in poverty.

“You see things like the increase in pre-K funding, which can help close the gap between low-income children and middle-class children,” Scott said.

Scott also credited Bice in his work to transform the state’s public schools.

“It started off with a focus on raising the graduation rate, or reducing the dropout rate, but what I see is that we’ve really gone a step beyond that,” Scott said.

But she worries that “the gains that we made during the economic boom years have been erased in Alabama. Poor children are much more likely to grow up and be poor themselves.”

Other notable changes in this year’s report were movements at the bottom spots. Mississipi, for the first time in 24 years, wasn’t ranked last for child well-being. That spot went to New Mexico. More Mississippi children are attending preschool, and fewer have parents who lack a high school diploma, the report found.

Three Southwestern states — Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico — were ranked in the bottom five overall. Southern states have traditionally filled the majority of those spots in past reports.

New this year, the report gives statistics on multiracial children, showing that they fared worse in almost every statistic compared to non-Hispanic white children.

“Inequities among children remain deep and stubbornly persistent,” the report stated.

Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.
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