County ranks 5th in state for child wellbeing

The latest “Alabama Kids County Data Book,” put out each year by Voices for Alabama’s Children, has good news for Cullman County. The county ranks 5th statewide for child well-being, based on indicators such as the number of children living in poverty, educational attainment, teen births, infant mortality rates, children covered by health insurance, obesity rates and availability of prenatal care. But the report also raises some red flags that could impact Cullman County families and their future workforce.

Overall, Alabama is following a national trend of decreasing child population as more families wait longer to have children or have fewer children, but the population is becoming more ethnically diverse. While the change in Cullman County has not been as pronounced as other Alabama counties, Cullman’s child population – defined as under 20 – has dropped slightly from 27 percent in 2000 to 24.6 percent in 2018, with the biggest decrease appearing in the 14-19-year-old age group.

The group warns that Alabama’s loss of child population indicates trouble for the state’s future workforce. “We could be looking at a workforce shortage,” said Angela Thomas, communications manager for Voices for Alabama’s Children. “We could be looking at people who are not going into the necessary trades we need to survive, like medical care.”

She also raised the issue of how insufficient child care affects the workforce. “If we need all these skilled workers, where are their children going to go? Childcare is always a big thing for us — safe, accessible and affordable childcare. And some of these skilled workers are working dynamic shifts and they need extended childcare or early morning childcare or after school childcare.”

The report found that statewide, that while the number of licensed child care centers has declined from 2000 to 2018, the number of licensed exempt centers has risen from 628 to 816, an increase of 30 percent in the number of unregulated and uninspected centers. In the one-year period from 2018-2019, the number of license-exempt daycares declined from 907 to 816. In Cullman County, as of April 2019, there were 20 licensed daycares and 9 license-exempt daycares.

“Even though the unemployment rate is looking great, we’ve still got kids living and families living in poverty,” said Thomas. “Are people just taking jobs that, one, aren’t meeting the living wage or, two, they just need a job and it’s difficult to get a job so they’re taking whatever they can find? And how does taking a job like that, where you don’t work a typical nine-to-five, how is that affecting the wellbeing of your child?”

The issue also impacts the schools, which may see chronic absenteeism as a result.

“They [kids] may be missing school because they don’t have anyone to take them to school in the morning or get them up and get them fed and get them to school,” said Thomas.

Among the positive improvement of key indicators for Cullman County were a decrease in the infant mortality rates, fewer low birth weight babies, a drop of more than 10 percent of teens giving birth, fewer diet-related deaths and a decrease in violent juvenile crimes. Some negative indicators included more children indicating signs of neglect or abuse, fewer pregnant women receiving prenatal care

One thing the report points out is how poverty can impact outcomes. For example, according to the report, 89 percent of children living in poverty graduate from high school, while 98 percent of those living above poverty graduate. Both rates are above the state’s graduation rates. Likewise, the dropout rate for children in poverty in Cullman County is 9 percent and 1.5 percent for those living above the poverty line.

Nearly 20 percent of Cullman’s children under the age of 20 live in poverty, up from 14.9 percent in 2000, the report said. Of those, 8.7 percent are listed as living in “extreme poverty.”

Students in Cullman also do better than their peers across the state when it comes to college and career readiness. The study says 90 percent of graduating students are prepared for college or careers, compared to 75.1 percent for the state.

Thomas said the importance of collecting the data and presenting the report each year is to give voice to Alabama’s children.

“Most of us want to take care of our youngest citizens,” she said. “Oftentimes, they can’t speak for themselves and they can’t make a change on behalf of themselves.” Ensuring they have safe housing, economic stability and access to healthcare and education impacts everyone, she said. “If you don’t have children of your own or you don’t have family going through these adverse experiences, it’s easy to turn a blind eye to it. But if you think about the future of our state and our country and what our workforce is going to look like if these children aren’t thriving now, if they’re not succeeding in school, if they don’t have things necessary to allow them to grow and become successful participants in society, what is that going to look like for our state in a few years?”

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