State fares poorly in ‘Kids Count’

Published 9:12 pm Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Annie E. Casey Foundation has released its 20th annual Kids Count Data Book, and the news is not good for Alabama.

Kids Count ranks the states based on the well-being of their children. Alabama ranked 48th with only Louisiana and Mississippi trailing.

“No, that’s not good for Alabama,” said Linda Tilly, executive director Voices for Alabama’s Children, which provided the Casey Foundation data. “What is really disturbing is that, if the Alabama and Auburn football teams were ranked 48th in the nation, there would be a statewide outcry. It should be that way about the well being of our children.”

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According to the data released by the Casey Foundation, the number of Alabama children living in poverty in 2007 was 261,151. There had been a gradual increase in that number from 234,658 in 2003 to 260,919 in 2005. However, in 2006, the number dropped to 253,314 but jumped in 2007 to the highest in five years.

The graduation rate dropped from 2000 to 2007 but only slightly, from 37,815 to 37,662.

The low weight births data was troubling, Tilly said. The number continually increased reaching a five-year high of 6,616 in 2006.

First grade retention numbers dropped from 3,810 in 2003 to 2,999 in 2007.

Single-parent families with children jumped markedly over a 10 year period from 155,185 in 1990 to 203,931 in 2000.

Pike County numbers showed a slight increase in the number of children living in poverty from 2,093 in 2003 to 2,421 in 2007.

The graduation rate remained virtually the same from 2000 to 2007, and first grade retention dropped .4 percent from 2003 to 2007.

The low birth weights decreased from 47 in 2002 to 34 in 2006, but single-parent families with children jumped from 1,289 in 1990 to 1,670 in 2000.

“There’s lag time in data collecting, reporting and analyzing, and it’s an imperfect measure but it’s a good indicator of the well-being of our children,” Tilly said.

But the data is not cause for doom and gloom. It means that more must be done.

“We have to do something to improve the well-being of our children,” Tilly said. “Individuals have to do something. Neighbors and faith groups and community organizations have to do something. And, there’s also a role for state and national polices.”

Tilly said a good example of state policy that should have a downstream positive impact on the high school dropout rate and the graduate rate is the Reading Initiative.

“Having invested in a first-class, pre-K program will make a huge difference,” she said. “Statistics show that there’s a 50 percent chance that a child who is retained one year will not graduate. “

The teen death rate is another area where Alabama can change from a worsening measure to a greatly improved measure.

“The greatest cause of teen deaths is car crashes,” Tilly said. Alabama has a graduated driver license, but we need to do more to make sure that young drivers experience more controlled driving situations.

“We need to limit the number of passengers in cars for the first six months of a first time driver. Statistics show that every passenger in a car is an added distraction that increases the risk of an accident. The passenger limit needs to be one. We need to have a mandatory learner’s permit law at age 15. That gives young drivers a full year of supervised driving experience.”

Tilly found a silver lining to the cloud hanging over Alabama’s kids. She views the current Kids Count ranking as 50 cars lined up heading for the beach.

“With so many ahead of us, Alabama will have to go faster and in higher gear to get ahead of some of the other states,” she said. “And, compared to the rate of progress, Alabama is ranked number 18 and 16 in two studies. So we are improving at a faster rate, and we must keep doing that until we pass other states. We are doing a lot of good and right things and they will pay off for us.”