Cost of living is low, so big bucks and bloated checking accounts go a long way. Property taxes are off-the-charts low. And, unless you want to live on the Gulf Coast or in the rarified air of the state’s swankiest suburbs, real estate prices aren’t exorbitant.
Alabama isn’t a wonderful state to live in if you’re poor.
Cost of living is low, but Alabama submarines that advantage with a host of regrettable policies. The state is one of only two states that charges sales tax on groceries. The state’s upside-down tax system requires residents on the lower end of the scale to pay more, percentage-wise, than it does those on the upper end. That’s both unfair and indefensible — politically, fiscally and morally.
More broadly, Alabama is thrifty when it comes to public education — so those with little don’t have as many educational opportunities with which to lift themselves from poverty. The state has many fine colleges and universities, but the affordability of a college education in Alabama is abysmally high. On and on we could go.
All that is relevant because of a new report, “Pulling Apart: A State-by-State Analysis of Income Trends,” released jointly last week by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute, two Washington-based, nonpartisan research organizations.
Their report reaffirmed what we already knew. The gap between Alabama’s poor and Alabama’s rich resembles the Grand Canyon: deep, wide, imposing. Time has changed little for the positive. In fact, the report shows that Alabama’s gap is worsening even as the nation continues its slow churn out of the Great Recession.
According to Alabama Arise, which advocates for low-income Alabamians, the “Pulling Apart” report is a deadly signal for what the state faces. Today, Alabama owns the nation’s fifth largest increase in the income gap between the poorest fifth of households and the richest fifth of households between the late-1990s and the mid-2000s.
How much? Consider: In that time frame, the poorest fifth saw its income drop 13.5 percent; the richest fifth saw its income increase 12.8 percent.
That’s not a gap. That’s a chasm of difference.
“Hard work should pay off for everyone, whether you work in a corner office or a restaurant kitchen,” said Kimble Forrister of Alabama Arise. “Instead, most of the benefits from Alabama’s economic growth in the last decade have gone straight to the top. It’s deepening an income divide that’s bad for Alabama.”
For what it’s worth, the gap between the state’s rich and middle class has increased, as well.
Alabama is home to physical beauty, unlimited natural resources and resilient, hard-working people. In that sense, it is the best of several worlds.
But Alabama also is home to deep inequalities between the haves and the have-nots, and cowardice is rampant among the policy-makers who could change that paradigm.
As long as that cowardice is prevalent, the rich will love living in Alabama and the poor will have no choice but to feed off what little they can get.