No surprise: Kids still fare poorly in poorer places

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There’s seldom much “good” news in any index of child poverty, even when some numbers indicate progress. When they go the other way, they paint a bleak picture indeed.

The just-released issue of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Kids Count study again confirms statistically what we already knew anecdotally: Georgia and Alabama continue to be poor states, and much of the deprivation associated with that poverty is borne by our children.

The headlines: Alabama has risen one spot in the rankings, while Georgia has fallen six. Both are in the bottom 10 — Georgia at 43rd and Alabama 44th. We might otherwise be tempted to invoke the familiar “Thank God for Mississippi” (49th) mantra, but not when the context is more hungry, uninsured, ill-housed and otherwise at-risk children.

There were some improvements and grounds for cautious hope. Alabama’s teen birth rate, for instance — a key indicator of child well-being — fell by a full 15 percent between 2005 and 2011, the latest year for which statistics are available. Even better, the rate of high school students not graduating in four years fell by 20 percent over that same period.

In Georgia, the percentage of children without health insurance showed modest improvement, from 11 percent in 2008 to 10 percent in 2011. There were improvements in educational indicators, but even there the progress is bittersweet: “Only” 68 percent of Georgia fourth-graders were deficient in reading skills in 2010-11, as opposed to 74 percent in 2005, and “only” 30 percent of Georgia high schoolers failed to graduate on time, as opposed to 38 percent in 2005-06. (Alabama’s fourth-grade reading deficiency rate also “improved,” from 78 to 69 percent.

That’s pretty much the extent of the positive trends. The percentage of Georgia children living in poverty rose by a sobering 6 percentage points since 2005, up from 20 to 26 percent. Worse, a full one-third of the state’s children live in homes where no parent has secure employment. In Alabama, there were 40,000 more poor children in 2011 than in 2005, an increase of 3 percentage points.

Child welfare advocates in both states point, not surprisingly and not inaccurately, to the still-struggling state economies five years after the onset of the Great Recession: Budgets, including budgets for social welfare, public education and early childhood learning programs, have endured deep cuts.

But as Linda Tilley, director of Voices for Alabama’s Children, pointed out, persistent poverty rates put even those areas of modest progress in peril.

“I think that we should be concerned,” Tilly told the Anniston Star. “I think that what happens in the future will depend on how we, as a state, and local communities, neighborhoods and churches, weigh in and help children who live in poverty.”

If we truly are our brothers’ keepers, then we are keepers of our brothers’ children as well.

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