No big surprises in poverty census

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Alabama is poor. No kidding.

According to U.S. Census data released last month, Alabama’s metropolitan areas ranked among the poorest in the nation. The state’s worst areas were cities to the south.

The Montgomery metro area ranked 10th highest among the 157 cities surveyed in the percentage of people living in poverty, based on 2002 data. It placed 14th in the percentage of poor children.

The Mobile area was right behind: 11th highest for people in poverty, 12th highest for children.

The Birmingham area, meanwhile, placed 49th in overall poverty and 39th in children in poverty. That’s substantially better than Montgomery and Mobile, but certainly nothing to brag about.

Fact is, those are dreadful numbers for the state’s largest cities. It confirms, yet again, what we already knew: A lot of Alabamians are struggling mightily to make ends meet. That makes the state’s budget crisis, which translates into fewer state services to the needy, even more painful.

If anything, the 2002 American Community Survey that News staff writer John Archibald reported on in Sunday’s newspaper understates the severity of poverty in our state.

Remember, these are rankings for Alabama cities; incomes are much lower and poverty rates higher in Alabama’s rural counties, especially those in the Black Belt. The state as a whole, for example, ranks sixth worst in the percentage of children who are poor.

The ramifications of just the child poverty ranking are easy to see. Poor children face a deck stacked against them: They’re more likely to be victims of crime, abuse or neglect, more likely to suffer ill health and less likely to succeed in school, according to children’s advocates.

More than a quarter of children in the Mobile and Montgomery areas live in poverty, while nearly a fifth of children in the Birmingham are poor. Even the Huntsville area, which had the state’s highest median family income, recorded a poverty rate for children of 16 percent.

These facts pose a challenge for state policy-makers. At a time when they must pare down state spending to live within the constraints of anemic budgets, they must make sure the social safety net, already filled with holes through years of inadequate funding, is in place for those who truly need it. They also need to adopt policies that improve opportunities for the poor through the creation of more and better-paying jobs and improved schools.

For any chance of these things happening, lawmakers in the legislative session that begins next month must take the budget crisis seriously. They must do away with every dollar of pork larded in the budgets. They must closely consider every possible money-saving idea offered, from consolidation of state agencies to making state and education employees pay more for health insurance to eliminating corporate tax loopholes. They must stand up to the special interests in Montgomery looking to protect perks gained over the years.

This is a very tall task. But the state can’t afford to condemn another generation to poverty.

The Birmingham News

Jan. 7, 2004