Critics will face a decision: Is that future version of Alabama superior to today’s?
Wednesday’s release of the 2012 Kids Count Data Book by the Annie E. Casey Foundation unleashed its usual trove of information about Alabama’s children. It is equal parts valuable and scary. It also offered a glimmer of hope about the state’s future — something the Kids Count findings have rarely done in previous years.
Alabama’s Kids Count ranking of 45 was its best since the rankings began in 1990. Applaud if you’d like. For more than two decades, the state has languished at or near the bottom of these reputable studies of the welfare and health of U.S. children. Moving a few spots ahead of Alabama’s habitual bottom-feeder residence is noteworthy, if nothing else.
Bottom line: We’re still 45th.
That said, it’s easy to agree with those who were pleased with the state’s rankings in the Kids Count’s educational indicators. Improvement trumps decay. And Alabama’s fourth-graders, according to Kids Count data, have made strides in reading efficiency. In 2005, 78 percent of Alabama fourth-graders did not read at fourth-grade level. In 2011, that percentage fell to 69 percent. The national average is 68. Similar improvements were made in eighth-grade math and graduation rates.
“That shows that long-haul efforts targeting specific goals, such as improving reading skills, can make a difference,” Jim Carnes, communications director for Alabama Arise, which advocates for low-income Alabamians, told The Birmingham News.
Nevertheless, the ugly side of our scenario — childhood poverty — can’t be ignored. Kids Count research shows that 28 percent of Alabama children lived in poverty in 2010. That’s 6 percentage points above the national average and a 3-percentage-point jump from four years ago during the beginnings of the Great Recession.
In other words, childhood poverty in Alabama is worsening at a rate that should alarm lawmakers who have a say in the state’s reaction to this crisis.
Yes, it’s a crisis. Harsh times require harsh words. Childhood poverty is an indicator of societal failings and governmental mistakes, and in Alabama, it is wrapped up in so many of Montgomery’s problems: the archaic design of the flawed 1901 Constitution; the state’s upside-down tax system that hurts low-income families and keeps them in a cycle of paucity; and too little legislative emphasis on thwarting this danger.
There are reasons to be optimistic about these latest Kids Count findings. We’d like to be ecstatic. But Alabama’s need to improve the lives of its children — particularly those who have little — remains overwhelming. We’ll throw a party when that’s no longer the case.