By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
A report released Thursday measuring Alabama children’s wellbeing doesn’t include any data since the onset of the coronavirus, but drafters expect some of the disparities highlighted in the Kids Count Data Book to be exacerbated by the pandemic.
“We fully believe that every indicator, or almost every indicator we’re tracking, will see significant impact directly because of COVID,” said Stephen Woerner, executive director of VOICES for Alabama Children, which publishes the annual report. “The silver lining, if there is one, is that this is highlighting so many issues that we need to address and policymakers and decision makers are going to have to make good decisions about how to support our children.”
One of the continued notable stats about Alabama’s children is that there are fewer of them. While Alabama’s total population has grown by just more than 10% since 2000, the child population has decreased by 3%. People of color will soon be the majority of the child population and the majority of the workforce by 2030.
The percentage of children living in poverty continues to increase, according to the newest data. The total rate of poverty for Alabama in 2014-2018 averaged 17.5%, up from 16.1% in 2000. But children in poverty had an average rate from 2014-2018 of 25.1%, up from 21.5% in 2000. Poverty rates are higher for Black and Hispanic children, 41.9% and 42.6%, respectively.
The Kids Count Data Book measures 70 indicators of childhood wellbeing including health, economic security and education. The 2020 report is based mostly on data points from 2018 and 2019. Much of the data is available by county. Shelby County ranks No. 1 for overall well-being, followed by Limestone, Lee, and Baldwin counties.
Among the good news in the report: Continued improvement in infant mortality rates and a drop in teen births.
“We’re seeing a significant decrease in teen mothers, so that’s obviously a good thing,” Woerner said.
New in this year’s report is information about mental health services. Last year, 33,118 children received services for a serious emotional disturbance.
Alabama this year performed better than in 2019 on several of the 16 data points used by the Annie E. Cason Foundation to measure childhood wellbeing, but the state dropped from 44th in the nation to 47th overall. Woerner said that’s because other states improved at more significant rates.
Gaps in educational gains among children in poverty are highlighted in the report.
Several groups are concerned about educational losses related to COVID-19, including those caused by inequities in access to broadband internet and devices in the home.
“We thought we had problems with summer slump, what happens when you’re out of school for nine months?” Woerner said.
In October, Alabama Daily News reported on an expected drop in enrollment in school systems, particularly in kindergarten, and the impact that will have on learning and school funding.
This week, al.com reported that nearly 9,800 students are missing from this year’s final enrollment tally.
“It is going to take years to get over the challenges that are being created by COVID right now and we’re going to see it in the datasets, the graduation rates, the dropout rates,” Woerner said.
Another statistic that will likely be impacted by COVID-19: Child abuse and neglect. Reports of child abuse or neglect also increased between 2008 and last year, from a rate of 5.1 per 1,000 to 11.1 per 1,000.
“And that may not actually be an indication that there’s more abuse going on, it may be that we’re catching more situations as we continue to educate teachers and pediatricians,” Woerner said.
In August, ADN reported that reports of child abuse and neglect dropped significantly when schools were closed in March.
“What we’re getting anecdotally is that the numbers (of reported abuse) are going way, way down and cases reported since March 16,” Woerner said. “But the cases that we’re seeing are far more catastrophic with kids in hospitals versus being caught at the school with bruises. And what we suspect is going on is that the kids are probably being abused at a higher rate, particular physical abuse, but they’re not being caught by the safety net of pediatricians and teachers and pre-K teachers.
“…With unemployment and food security and all of these other issues going on, we’re really concerned about that number.”
Like other state leaders, Woerner said COVID-19 didn’t create disparities in the state, but is highlighting them.
“The inequities are real, they existed before and they’re going to be a lot worse moving forward if we’re not very intentional about addressing them,” he said.