It is that time of year where in Mobile you can be assured of experiencing at least two things: heat and rain. At times both can be a little overwhelming, but that is life in our pocket of the Gulf Coast.
This is also the time of year many of our young people experience a monumental transition. They experience something they’ve looked forward to with great excitement and anticipation — graduating from high school. Like myself, you may have attended a local graduation ceremony this month.
Seeing the joy and enthusiasm of the graduates, along with their families and friends, never gets old. The air is filled with electricity and each graduate is a picture of possibility. Rightly, they see the future as an open book whose pages they dream of filling with accomplishment and success.
Some dreams are big, others are modest, but virtually all contain a hope, a belief in the positive possibilities the future holds. A dream of moving forward educationally and economically. A dream of climbing a little bit higher on the ladder of upward mobility than their parents and others who have gone before. A dream of realizing what is popularly termed “the American Dream.”
The U.S. economy has been on an upward trajectory for over seven years. Mirroring that trend, Alabama’s economy has likewise rebounded from the Great Recession. The South as a region has been doing quite well. But economic and statistical data tell the tale of two Souths. In one, economic activity and upward mobility are on the rise. In the other, upward mobility and economic prosperity seem unattainable. As one researcher has noted, “For many in the South, the American Dream is more like an inherited nightmare.”
A recent study released by United Way reveals 42 percent of Alabamians, or nearly 800,000 Alabama households, can’t afford a monthly budget that includes housing, food, child care, health care, transportation and a cellphone. Titled the ALICE Project, it identifies families categorized as asset-limited, income-constrained employed.
These “economically forgotten” families live above the federal poverty level, yet have a very difficult time making ends meet and paying for basic necessities. Even though the adults in the household are working, critical financial decisions are constantly being made. Should money be spent to pay rent or buy groceries? Should a needed prescription be filled or the water bill paid?
When you combine those living below the federal poverty line and those in the ALICE category, a shocking picture is created of the number of Alabamians living in an economic nightmare. In Perry County the combined percentage of those living below the poverty and ALICE level is 70 percent. In Wilcox County it’s 66 percent. In Escambia County it’s 58 percent. Clark and Monroe counties are 53 percent and 56 percent, respectively. Mobile and Baldwin counties are at, respectively, 46 percent and 41 percent.
It’s difficult to have healthy communities when a sizable portion of its members are living in such economic distress.
Research shows educational outcome, or the lack thereof, is one of the most important factors contributing to this handing down of economic despondency from one generation to another. For far too many kids in Alabama born into dire and destitute economic circumstances, escape as adults seldom materializes.
A recent Brookings Institution report observes, “The evidence suggests that children of high- and low-income families start out with similar abilities but rapidly diverge in outcomes.” This divergence is fostered by one group’s access to a higher quality of educational opportunity and resource-rich educational experience.
When I think of the importance we as a community and as a state need to place on ensuring our education system is doing all it can to address and reverse this lack of opportunity — and the dire economic straits many of our young people are walking into — I think of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who noted, “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there ‘is’ such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”
Indeed, there is a “fierce urgency of now” when it comes to our young people. As we pursue “vigorous and positive action,” we can ensure that when graduates, regardless of socioeconomic standing, walk across the stage and receive their diplomas, their dream of a better future is more than just wishful thinking, and very much attainable. And as their dreams come true, so do ours: More stable communities. Safer communities. Communities people want to move to and not away from.
“A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work.” As a community and as a state, it’s time for us to get to work.