It might as well be Alabama’s state motto. Many Alabamians are familiar with the saying — an acknowledgement of the widespread belief that the state ranks 49th in every measure of well-being. Alabama consistently occupies the bottom rungs of the quality-of-life ladder, the theory goes, with its mirror-image neighbor just one spot lower.
However, the saying probably annoys folks in Mississippi. It’s also an annoyance to many Alabamians who are working hard to raise the state from the bottom tier. Even when things improve, it’s hard to shake the Alabama-is-49th mentality.
As the state faces a kind of economic hardship it hasn’t seen since the Great Depression, The Anniston Star decided to take a closer look at Alabama’s real place in the rankings on several indicators of development and well-being. Where we could, we also tried to get predictions of where the state is headed — a hard thing to do, it turns out, in an age of austerity.
The good news is that very few of our indicators show Alabama in 49th place (or 50th). But the state is still in the bottom tier even in areas where sharp progress has been made. And the most reliable data is years old, meaning that rankings often reflect where things were before the crash of 2008, or just after.
Here’s a look at a few of the key indicators of well-being and development — and where Alabama is headed on each:
Infant mortality — a count of infants who are stillborn, or who die in the early months of life — is one of the most heart-wrenching of all statistics. It’s also one of the most telling. For decades, sociologists have used infant mortality as a measure of the most crushing kinds of poverty, because high mortality rates are common in the world’s poorest countries.
Alabama seems to prove the rule that poverty and infant death go hand-in-hand. Officials at the state’s Perinatal Health Program cite a number of reasons for the state’s high rate — including obesity, hypertension, diabetes and lack of health care — most of which are linked to poverty.
But things are getting better. State officials say that national trends, such as a nationwide decline in the teen pregnancy rate, have helped Alabama chip away at the problem. So has a wide range of state initiatives designed to promote healthy habits among young mothers in conditions of poverty.
But no one can explain the sudden drop in mortality that happened in 2009.
In 2007, Alabama’s infant mortality rate was approximately 10 infant deaths per 1,000 live births. By 2009, state numbers show, the number had dropped to 8.2 per 1,000.
It doesn’t make sense — given that the U.S. economy nearly collapsed in 2008, swelling the numbers of people in poverty.
“We really don’t know why our rate is as low as it is right now,” said Janice Smiley, director of the Perinatal Health Program. “There are many factors involved, and right now we can only have theories.”
One intriguing theory: The economic downturn decimated the ranks of the working poor, turning them into the jobless poor. Women who had been working, and living near the poverty level without health insurance, were suddenly unemployed and on Medicaid. The result? Better prenatal health care.
Another theory: Women cut back on cigarettes. Smoking is tied to infant mortality, and Smiley and her colleagues say they’ve been working for some time to reduce smoking rates. Those efforts might be taking effect — or the economy might have squeezed cigarettes out of young mothers’ budgets.
Or it could be that people are listening to the agency’s advice about “co-sleeping,” the practice of sleeping in the same bed with one’s infant. Co-sleeping is a tradition in some families, and a seeming necessity in families that can’t afford a crib. But investigations by the Perinatal Program and other agencies are making it increasingly clear that co-sleeping is dangerous: a number of infant deaths in Alabama have been caused by parents or siblings rolling over on sleeping babies.
Smiley said her agency has been pushing awareness of the problem, and there has even been a push to donate cribs to families who need them.
Where we’re headed: It’s hard to say. Officials say they won’t know the real cause of the drop until more data is available. If the Medicaid theory is true, politics could affect the outcome. Medicaid could be affected by the current debate over state and federal budgets. Federal health care reform could increase health care access for women in poverty, if it is implemented.
Compared to most modern phenomena, the Internet is still very Wild West, unregulated and difficult to track. But there’s widespread agreement that Alabama is among the least-wired of states.
U.S. Census numbers show that in 2009, a full 33 percent of Alabamians didn’t have Internet access at home or at work, putting us above only West Virginia, Mississippi and Arkansas as the least-wired state. And 5 percent have Internet only through dialup.
Larry Childers, spokesman for the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, said the numbers should be interpreted with care. With so many different forms of Internet coming online — including smartphones and other devices with Web capability. Childers would know: ADECA is in charge of the Rural Broadband Initiative, which is trying to expand Web access by a number of delivery methods.
Childers pointed The Star to a Commerce Department study that offers a tighter definition of access. But that study, too, shows about 55 percent of Alabamians with broadband — and it places Alabama 48th in the nation.
While the broadband initiative is working to expand the broadband network into underserved rural areas, Childers said, cost is the real barrier to Internet access. Some Alabamians just can’t afford access, even when the network is there.
Where we’re headed: The state seems bound to become more wired, in part because of state and federal initiatives and in part because of the march of technology. Whether Alabama will become competitive with other states in the future is less clear.
Alabama’s divorce rate — the nation’s third-highest for men, and fourth-highest for women — would seem to be a big embarrassment for a conservative, sanctity-of-marriage state. But there’s more here than meets the eye.
Here, as in other statistics, poverty likely plays a role in Alabama’s rankings. For couples who are already having problems, economic stress can provide an extra nudge toward divorce, said Janice Clifford, a sociology professor at Auburn University.
But divorce rates nationwide have been dropping since the mid-1980s, Clifford said. Even Alabama is doing significantly better than 25 years ago.
The main reason for the declining divorce rates, Clifford said, is that people aren’t as eager to marry. Women have more career options than they had 25 years ago. Young people feel more pressure to pursue an education beyond high school. As a result, people are waiting longer to get hitched.
And the older people are when they marry, statistically speaking, the more likely they are to stay married.
Where we’re headed: Tough economic times could persuade some couples to put off marriage, Clifford said. On the other hand, economic stress could also lead to more divorces. But over the long term, Clifford said, the trend is toward later marriages and less divorce.
Despite all the talk about schools and reform this year, education remains the one bright light in the rankings.
By most indicators, students are doing better — and state officials know why.
Since the late 1990s, Alabama has launched a host of initiatives designed to fix the areas where the state’s performance was weakest. First there was the Alabama Reading Initiative, begun during the Siegelman administration. Then came the Alabama Science, Technology and Math Initiative, designed to improve math and science scores. The Riley administration added ACCESS, a program to use computers to provide Advanced Placement courses at all Alabama schools.
In recent years, Alabama schools have posted marked improvement on a number of key indicators of achievement. The rhetoric from the Alabama Department of Education — touting Alabama as a leader in improved scores — might lead one to think things are rosier than they are, but the changes are significant.
On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the country’s main nationwide test of achievement, Alabama is still in the lower tier. Alabama’s fourth-grade reading scores are at 39th place. Fourth-grade science is in 43rd. Eighth-graders don’t do as well, still ranking near the bottom. But even NEAP’s annual reports remark on Alabama’s sharp progress on some measures.
Where state-by-state rankings are concerned, however, the Quality Counts report by the magazine Education Week may offer the most reliable single overall score. The organization takes a number of factors and gives each state’s schools a letter grade.
In 2011, Alabama gets a C-plus. Some of that score is derived from areas like school finance — important for a school system’s health, but not the nitty-gritty most parents care about.
On K-12 Achievement, Alabama gets an overall D, ranking 43rd. But a few years ago, Alabama hovered around 47th place.
Tommy Bice, assistant superintendent of education, says Alabama has made headway partly because the state has gotten over ratings-mania. After years of struggling with the rankings required in No Child Left Behind, he said, the state has begun to look more carefully at what it wants to achieve — instead of trying to keep up with the Joneses.
“Our goal is to create as many college- and career-ready adults as possible,” Bice said. “That’s what people really want out of the school system. If we move toward that goal, AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress scores) will take care of itself.”
A few years ago, Bice said, Alabama saw 7,000 students drop out of school annually. Alabama focused on that population, granting local districts leeway to create dropout-prevention programs. Today the number is just 3,000.
Bice doesn’t know how that affects Alabama’s standing in state-by-state rankings on the dropout problem. Different states have different ways of measuring the dropout rate, and rankings are always hotly debated. Bice said he didn’t care to wade into all that.
“What matters is that fewer children are dropping out,” he said. “We’re making a difference to them.”
Where we’re headed: There’s no question that the state’s budget difficulties, combined with the shriveling of stimulus funds and local tax revenues still in the doldrums, will make things hard on educators in coming years. Bice said the budget situation “doesn’t bring us to a screeching halt,” noting that many of Alabama’s most innovative programs are inexpensive, adding that Alabama teachers are masters at working with few resources.
But there’s only so much that can be cut.
“My question is, how do you prorate beyond zero?” he said.
Star assistant metro editor Tim Lockette: 256-235-3560.