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Child well-being in Alabama improves, relative to other states

Alabama went from 45th to 39th in a national ranking of child well-being despite child poverty increasing significantly.

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In the 2024 KIDS COUNT Data Book, which summarizes data from 2022 and was released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation on Monday, Alabama jumped up 6 places in the overall child well-being rankings: from 45th to 39th place. The overall picture is more mixed though.

“Looking through a national lens, Alabama’s rankings are climbing, yet the state’s child well-being outcomes still need attention,” said Rhonda Mann, the executive director of VOICES for Alabama’s Children. VOICES is the Alabama affiliate for the KIDS COUNT program.

Apreill Hartsfield, the policy/data analyst for VOICES for Alabama’s Children, explained to APR that the move up in the national rankings likely reflects changes in other states more than changes in Alabama.

“While that does show improvement, and I do think we’ve made some improvements, what you also have to look at is the other states and how they compare to us,” Hartsfield said. “And so what happened in some of those states is they grew worse.”

As an example, VOICES pointed out in a press release that while the percentage of Alabama 4th graders scoring as proficient at reading was the same in 2019 and 2022, Alabama still moved from 47th to 41st in the reading rankings.

While some changes in the rankings were largely due to changes in other states, Alabama has still seen marked improvements since 2019 (before the COVID-19 pandemic) on some metrics.

In 2022, Alabama performed significantly better on measures of “Family and Community,” including the number of children in high poverty areas and the number of children in single parent households. Also, only 3 percent of Alabama children lacked health insurance coverage, which made Alabama 3rd in the nation on that one metric.

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But while the Data Book found that over the last few years the national child poverty rate improved, while parental employment stabilized between 2019 and 2022,” Alabama was a noteworthy exception. Between 2019 and 2022, the child poverty rate in Alabama increased from 17 percent to 22 percent.

However, this increase in child poverty might not actually be so anomalous. A report also released on Monday by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that nationwide 5 million more children were in poverty in 2022 than in 2021. The CBPP attributed this increase in child poverty to the expiration of the pandemic-era child tax credit expansion.

The differences in the two findings are likely due to the CBPP’s use of the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, which includes taxes, welfare programs, and adjustments for geographic variation that the traditional measure of poverty does not.

Despite the increase in child poverty, VOICES says that Alabama is also the only state [that has exceeded] pre-pandemic levels of achievement” in education.

Hartsfield said that “those improvements can be tied to the policies that we have put in place in Alabama.”

What has been most important for children’s education performance are “any of those investments that take a little extra time or provide a little extra resources,” Hartsfield told APR. “Whether it’s after school programs or tutoring, any of those programs are going to help build that child’s education, help those students who are kind of falling behind, help them get up to speed with their peers.”

She specifically pointed to the Alabama Literacy Act, passed in 2019, and the Alabama Numeracy Act, passed in 2022, as state programs that have been benefiting Alabama children.

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The most significant piece of education policy adopted recently was the CHOOSE Act, which will provide families with thousands of dollars a year to either homeschool or send their children to private schools.

Hartsfield was somewhat skeptical of claims that the CHOOSE Act will have significant positive effects on Alabama’s education metrics. “I think we have a lot of questions,” she said. “Will the benefits of that law actually reach the children who need it the most? I think only time will tell.”

Pointing to previous research, Hartsfield said that “other states are not completely comparable to Alabama, but they have not found those benefits have reached the children who needed it most.”

“We have to think about the money that’s being diverted away from the education trust fund which is there to fund public education,” she concluded. “So what is the outcome of that going to be? We’ll be looking at all of those different factors.”

Chance Phillips is a reporting intern at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can reach him at [email protected].

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