The recently released Kids Count 2017 data didn’t come as a shock to Sarah Jennifer Thompson, especially in the area of childhood poverty.
The founder of Sydney’s Safe Foundation has been fighting child hunger for a decade, the past seven years of which has included sending weekend food home with qualifying low-income students.
Statistics on child well-being in the annual report released last week signify a mixed bag of results for Alabama’s children in the area of health, safety and economic security.
The non-profit VOICES for Alabama’s Children annually produces the Alabama Kids Count Data book. With statistical research provided by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, the compilation is designed to be a roadmap for the state to improve the lives of Alabama’s children.
Overall, Alabama improved two places in the rankings, rising from 46th last year to 44th in 2017.
Local county rankings either stayed the same or improved as well. Colbert County dropped from 30th to 21st; Franklin County dropped from 42nd to 37th and Lauderdale stayed the same at 7th.
According to the report, approximately 300,000 (27 percent) of children in Alabama live in poverty.
Colbert, Franklin and Lauderdale counties each reported an increase in poverty among children from 2000.
Most categories reported in Kids Count are 18 months in arrears.
The category of children in poverty reported a 5-year cohort from 2011 to 2015 and compared those statistics to 2000. Area results showed the problem was worsening:
n Colbert County reported a 7.5 percent increase in children in poverty from 2000.
n Franklin County had a 13.9 percent increase.
n Lauderdale County had a 6.9 increase.
Dr. Karen Landers, a longtime pediatrician and assistant state health officer with the Alabama Department of Public Health, said childhood poverty is directly linked to the economy.
“I’m surprised we’re not seeing the really big drops in even more counties with the economic downturn,” Landers said.
“I know 2008-2009 had a big impact but I want to feel like that’s getting better and, economically, we’re just not. We have to look at economic opportunities in these areas.”
Rhonda Mann, VOICES policy and research director, said it’s good news that improvements are being made “but these statistics are still too high.”
“The fact that the number of children in poverty has risen so much tells us that people in those counties, the legislators who serve those counties, need to take a hard look,” Mann said.
The poverty guidelines include state income for a family of four at less than $24,000 per year, and in the case of extreme poverty, a family of four has less than a $12,000 per year income.
“We can certainly see this is why it is so hard for children to break that cycle of poverty,” Mann said.
Thompson’s organization operates under the simple slogan “Feed Them.”
“I see these reports and think about the bigger picture, just making things better for children in the world, our nation, state and it starts right here at home,” she said.
Thompson said on average, Sydney’s Safe volunteers pack and deliver about 300 bags of non-perishable food each week for students.
“The hope is that what we’re doing locally has a huge ripple effect. We’re meeting immediate needs. We realize that in sending these bags of food home, we’re sending hope and love to these kids.”
It’s programs like Sydney’s Safe that have kept the food insecurity statistics from soaring, Mann said.
“Food insecurity speaks to the economics of the household,” she said. “Overall, food insecurity is getting a little better. Access to healthy food options is the biggest problem, but so many factors are interwoven.”
Food insecurity statistics from 2015 show a less than one percent increase since 2010 in Colbert County, and slight declines in Franklin and Lauderdale counties.
“As long as the numbers are improving, that’s what really matters and even the counties ranking at the bottom are making strides,” Mann said.
In the area of unmarried teen births (ages 10-19), the state as well as some local counties have seen much-anticipated declines.
Colbert County reported a 3.3 percent decrease in 2015 compared to 2005. Lauderdale reported a 2.4 percent decrease, but unmarried teen births rose 2.4 percent during that period in Franklin County.
Landers said teen pregnancy is down nationwide, an indication that education is working.
“This is the one bright spot in this report,” she said. “Providing information for teens, enabling them to make good choices is vital. The bottom line is education empowers young people to make better decisions.”