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Opinion | If unemployment in Alabama is low, why is poverty so high?

Josh Moon

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There is a problem in Alabama. 

Well, actually, there are a lot of problems in Alabama, but this one problem is an encapsulation of almost all of the other problems. 

Right now, we are at record-low unemployment — somewhere around 3.7 percent. And you know this is true because Gov. Kay Ivey has made a big deal about it every time the unemployment numbers have been released. 

Ivey loves to say that she has “put Alabama back to work.”

But here’s the problem: New statistics released on Thursday by Alabama Possible, a nonprofit group that works with the state’s impoverished citizens, show Alabama has the nation’s sixth-highest rate of poverty, at nearly 17 percent. 

That’s about 3.5 points higher than the national average and means some 800,000 Alabamians are living in poverty. 

That’s a problem. A big one. 

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When almost everyone in your state who can legally and physically hold a job has a job, and yet, nearly 1 in 5 people are still living in poverty … something has gone a bit awry. 

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It’s not hard to identify what has gone awry. 

Education. 

This is what happens when you stink at educating the children of your state. You end up with low-skill, low-wage jobs that leave employees fighting to make ends meet every month and leaning on social services to just get by. 

Not because they’re lazy. Not because they’ve made bad decisions. Not because they lack intelligence or charisma or character or work ethic. 

But because they were set up to be stuck in this mud pit from birth. 

Kristina Scott, the executive director of Alabama Possible, said life for many in Alabama is the equivalent of running in place — no matter how hard they try or how much they push, they never advance, never move up. 

Alabama has one of the worst rates in the nation for upward mobility. Basically, if you’re born poor here, you’re probably gonna die poor here. 

Because long ago, Alabama gave up on the long-term goal in favor of the quick fix. Because a quick fix is so much more immediately satisfying. 

That’s why we are willing to dump billions — literally, billions — of dollars into incentives and tax packages every year to hand out to any two-bit company willing to set up shop for a few months in this state and hire some people. Hell, they don’t even have to be our people. In some cases, they don’t even have to live in this state. 

We’ll still fork over huge amounts of money. We’ll then hold photo ops and smile for the cameras. Pat everyone on the back. And the general public will be happy because a couple dozen “good jobs” are coming. 

In the meantime, that same general public won’t fork over a reasonable income tax that would pay for thousands of kids to have the necessary education and training that would send companies scrambling to Alabama to take advantage of its work-ready workforce. 

That same general public routinely shoots down tiny tax increases that would fund public schools and fights like hell to keep a racist funding system in place, ensuring that tomorrow’s entrepreneurs won’t be raised in this state. 

Because the long-term plan isn’t our plan. Never has been. 

Which is also why the problems extend beyond education and into every area of our lives. Just look at our health care system in this state. 

Our state leaders have been told repeatedly by company executives and recruiters that our faltering health care system — which is essentially nonexistent in our poorest counties — is turning companies off from choosing Alabama. What have we done about it? 

We banned abortions. And then went home. 

Seven of our counties have poverty rates higher than 30 percent. Those counties also have the worst health care options. And some of the worst-performing schools. 

Because all of it is tied together. 

We have a serious problem, Alabama. We’re failing. And unless we put aside the silly bickering, the petty racism and the unending greed, we’ll never solve it.

 

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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