New report: Alabama slowly improves child well-being; ranks 44 in nation

(AP Photo/The Kalamazoo Gazette, Mark Bugnaski)(Jennifer C. Kerr Associated Press WASHINGTON — Zero-tolerance)

The status of Alabama’s children is improving, according to a report released today. The 2017 Kids Count Data Book measures the health and well-being of children in each state and in the nation, based on 16 indicators of economic, education, health, and family and community well-being.

"It’s a great reflection on the state moving forward," said Rhonda Mann, policy and research director at VOICES for Alabama’s Children, which reports and publishes the Kids Count Data Book for Alabama.

"It’s not that we don’t have a lot of work still to do, but we’re excited about seeing improvement."

Kids Count ranked Alabama 44th in the nation overall this year, one spot higher than in 2016. Out of the 16 indicators highlighted in the book, Alabama improved in 11 of them. In six, Alabama ranked the same or better than the national average.

The report ranked Alabama 38 in economic well-being, 42 in education, 42 in health and 43 in family and community.

Mann credited the state’s recent investment in high-quality pre-K programs as a major reason the state has made improvements in child welfare overall.

"The road out of poverty is education, and starting early is important," said Mann. "When children are more successful n school, they feel better about themselves" and are more likely to avoid risky behavior as they enter their teen years, she said. "In Alabama our research shows those (high-quality pre-K) programs work very well, not only to help children to be ready for kindergarten, but to help close achievement gaps."

Alabama’s brightest spot on the report is that it ranks fifth in the nation for children covered by health insurance. Only 3 percent of children in Alabama had no health insurance in 2015, compared to 5 percent nationwide. Alabama also bested the national rate for high school students graduating on time.

Mann said Medicaid funding affects that number, but Alabama’s Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as ALL Kids, plays a role as well.

"ALL Kids was one of the first and is considered one of the best models for children’s health insurance," said Mann. "It uses a sliding scale for eligibility/assistance, which helps those families that might not qualify for Medicaid but can’t really afford to pay for health insurance on their own if they don’t have family benefits through their employer."

Since Kids Count began tracking economic indicators in 2012, Alabama had never shown improvement in any of them, said Mann. This year, the state improved in all four indicators. Alabama went from 28 percent of its children in poverty in 2010 to 27 percent in 2015. The United States averages 21 percent.

Other economic indicators included children whose parents lack secure employment, children living in households with high housing cost burden, and teens not in school and not working. Alabama improved several points in each case.

"(Economic indicators) are difficult indicators to move the needle on, and it takes a lot of people for there to be any improvements in these," said Mann. "How do we move 290,000 children out of poverty in Alabama? It’s going to take us a while."

While the percentage of children living in poverty decreased, the percentage of children living in high-poverty areas increased, from 15 percent in 2008-2012 to 16 percent in 2011-2015. Nationwide, that percentage increased as well, to 14 percent.

State education is a mixed bag, according to KIDS COUNT. Alabama raised its percentage of fourth graders proficient in reading and high school students graduating on time. But the percent of young children not in school increased from 56 percent in 2009 to 57 percent in 2015. The percentage of eighth graders not proficient in math also increased, from 80 percent in 2009 to 83 percent in 2015.

Mann said VOICES has been working for 25 years to improve the quality of life for children in the state, and the organization would like to see funding increased incrementally for high-quality pre-K programs, and to improve Alabamians’ access to healthy food options. She also wants to see child care regulated, an issue debated in the state legislature this year.

"We encourage lawmakers to make children and families a priority," Mann said. "programs are working. Data shows we’re heading in the right direction. To continue to keep up with or outdo the rest of the nation we need to keep improving our commitment to families."

The Alabama KIDS COUNT Data Book, which includes a deeper dive into state trends and county-level data, is scheduled to be released in September.

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