There is a very common saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Though the phrase itself is of disputed origin, its meaning has never been in doubt: a picture or graphic illustration conveys a stronger message than words alone. In our modern culture, dominated by visual imagery and stimulation, this oft-stated idiom has even more significance.
Images, illustrations and graphics can have a profound effect, at times leading to meaningful discussion and purposeful action. A picture of a child sitting in horrified shock, covered in dust after surviving the bombardment of a war-ravaged city. A picture of a city immersed in water after being inundated in a historic flood. A graphic showing the epidemic level of drug overdoses exploding across the United States. Or a set of graphics showing the staggering extent of poverty that exists in the state of Alabama.
The latter is what we were provided with this summer. The picture the graphics paint definitely isn’t pretty, but it is one worth examining. The 2016 Alabama Poverty Data Sheet is a blistering presentation of statistics and figures showing how many of our fellow Alabamians are having a difficult time making ends meet. Of the almost 5 million residents in Alabama, over 900,000 live below the federal poverty line. Out of that 900,000-plus number, close to 300,000 are children.
The color-coded “Poverty Rate by State” map, displaying states with the highest poverty rates in a deep red color, reveals Alabama is one of only four states in the nation in this woeful category. Now the fourth poorest state in the nation, the last few years have been a steady march in the wrong direction: in 2015 we were sixth, in 2014 we ranked seventh.
The “Poverty Rate in Alabama” map shows 59 of Alabama’s 67 counties have poverty rates above the national average of 15.5 percent. Nineteen counties are in the highest category, with poverty rates in which 25 percent or more of residents are living below the federal poverty line.
Yes, Jesus said, “The poor you will have with you always …” but does that mean we should be content with knowing they exist around us, particularly in such large numbers? I love the response of one America’s most revered Christian leaders, Rev. Billy Graham, who noted that “Jesus wasn’t saying we shouldn’t fight poverty or help those in need — not at all. He was only giving a description of the way the world actually is, not the way it should be.”
So how do we in Alabama go about establishing things the way they should be? How do we send these numbers and statistics in the opposite direction, thereby reducing those exposed to and impacted by poverty?
Hope and direction are found in a statistical category whose numbers are currently as bad as the other categories, yet points a way forward. Labeled the “Opportunity Index,” it’s a county- and state-level composite measuring tool used to gauge the presence, or lack thereof, of educational, economic and civic factors that foster opportunity. It’s also “designed to help identify concrete solutions to lagging conditions for opportunity and economic mobility.”
Score range is from 0-100. The national state average is 54; Alabama’s score is 46. The majority of counties in Alabama have Opportunity Index scores in the 30s and 40s. The lower the opportunity, the higher the poverty. Alabama’s way forward is opening up and advancing opportunity.
That’s why Alabama Possible, the state nonprofit that annually compiles the Alabama Poverty Data Sheet, sees as its mission not just bringing awareness or attention to this systemic issue, but also pushing for increased opportunity.
Cognizant of Department of Education data that shows 9 out of 10 students who fill out a Federal Application for Student Aid (FASFA) end up attending college the following fall, they’ve implemented a “Cash for College” program. The goal is to get Alabama high schools on board and motivated about having seniors complete a FASFA.
Since many Alabama students qualify for a Pell Grant (up to $5,815 a year that does not have to be repaid), it can be the gateway for a great opportunity to obtain a two- or four-year degree. It’s just one of a number of ways the organization is trying to do more than simply paint a picture of poverty in Alabama — they are also trying to change the landscape.
Similarly, Arise Citizens Policy Project (ACCP) “is a statewide nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of 150 congregations and community groups and hundreds of individuals united in their belief that low-income people are suffering because of state policy decisions.” The advocacy arm of ACCP, Alabama Arise, recently released a list of its top state legislative priorities for 2017. Many of them center on increasing opportunity.
Policies such as: adequate funding for vital services like education, health care and child care, including Medicaid expansion and approval of new tax revenue for general fund services; state funding for public transportation in rural, urban and suburban areas; “ban the box” legislation to remove the criminal history checkbox from job applications so employers can consider an applicant’s qualifications first before a background check; creation of a state minimum wage to help families make ends meet; and tax reform, including untaxing groceries and closing corporate income tax loopholes.
The picture of poverty in Alabama won’t be changed until we see that advocacy and agency are collective responsibilities.