Poverty is so common in Alabama it can be hard to see.” This oxymoronic, or seemingly self-contradicting, statement was made by Kristina Scott, executive director of Alabama Possible, in a news release concerning the organization’s recent publication of its 2017 Alabama Poverty Data Sheet.
The study is conducted and published yearly to serve as a data set and policymaking guide for state and local leaders focused on eradicating the stubborn barriers to economic prosperity and a better quality of life for many Alabamians — barriers that in our part of the country have been, unfortunately for some, passed down from generation to generation. If the American dream is to live better and more comfortably than one’s parents, for many this has never been any more than just that — a dream.
The report first highlights some positive news. Alabama’s median household income is up, at $44,833, from 2016’s reported $44,765. The state’s poverty rate has declined to 18.5 percent, down from 19.2 percent the year before. In 2016, 19 Alabama counties were reported as having a poverty rate of more than 25 percent; this year that dropped to 14 counties.
The state is seeing some positive movement in its fight against a formidable and persistent foe; however, there is still a ways to go. Many states have rebounded well from the economic depths of the Great Recession, yet Alabama’s recovery has been much slower, and the disparity in many categories (poverty rate, median household incomes, food insecurity, etc.) between the state and national averages is sizable.
As one of the poorest states in the nation, Alabama’s numbers are daunting and should serve as a clarion call to action. Although Alabama’s poverty rate has declined slightly, nearly 900,000 Alabamians live below the federal poverty line. Of that figure, 300,000 are children. That means more than one-fourth of the children in Alabama — 26.5 percent — live in poverty.
Twelve of the 15 U.S. states with the highest child poverty rates are in the South, and Alabama is one of them. Alabama’s child food insecurity rate (a measure of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake) is 6 percentage points higher than the national average of 17.9 percent.
As noted, Alabama’s median income has improved to $44,833, but still falls far short of the national average of $55,775. For African-Americans in Alabama the gap is even wider. At a median of $29,180, the average African-American family in Alabama is taking in $26,000 less than the average American family.
Regionally, Alabama is not an outlier when it comes to such woeful statistics. The U.S. Census Bureau defines the South as a 17-state region inclusive of the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia (for statistical purposes, the Census Bureau also considers the District of Columbia a state and part of the South). There are definitely exceptions among these, but the data accumulated and reported by the Census Bureau and other organizations show that one constant many Southern states share is entrenched and systemic poverty.
Of the top 10 poorest states in America, nine are in the South. Much of the Sunbelt is also sadly regarded as the Poverty Belt. In the South, data show poverty is passed on from generation to generation more so than in any other part of the country. If misery loves company, when it comes to poverty Alabama has plenty of regional company.
Yet, in publishing its yearly Alabama Poverty Data Sheet, the goal of Alabama Possible is not to simply remind Alabamians that we live in a state afflicted by poverty, in the midst of a region that for generations has shared in that affliction. No, the organization’s goal can be found in its name: Alabama Possible. Although the challenges are difficult, they, like many in this state, believe change is possible.
It starts with education. Education has rightly been referred to as the “gateway” to upward economic mobility. States with low poverty levels and high median incomes share a common thread: high levels of education. The national college attainment rate is around 30 percent, and 17 of the states that reported having higher than average median household incomes had college attainment rates above the national average. Such states make significant investment in their K-12 education system as well.
Unfortunately, according to information provided by Governing magazine, Southern states generally spend about 50 percent less per student in grades K-12 than the top-earning states. This failure to fully invest in young people serves to maintain a major barrier to upward economic mobility and prosperity.
As Republican State Sen. Arthur Orr noted last year when addressing this topic, “How do we change the lives of these young people who, through no fault of their own, have been born into poverty? Education. It’s that simple.”
Alabama may not be able to fund its education system at the level of a Massachusetts or a Connecticut, but it can do much better than it’s doing now.
Other measures proven effective at removing the barriers to economic prosperity are: a fair and balanced tax structure; mixed-income housing designed to eliminate pockets of concentrated poverty; state funding for public transportation; and an adequate health care system.
Jesus indeed said “The poor you will have with you always.” But that was not a statement advocating complacency or a lack of concern for the poor. Quite the opposite — it was a call to do what is possible to ensure those who fall into that category are as small in number as possible.