MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The nonprofit organization Voices for Alabama’s Children is asking state leaders to expand social services for children who are faring worse economically when compared to over a decade ago.
Meeting with several state department heads – including Barbara Cooper, secretary for the state Department of Early Childhood Education, Eric Mackey, state superintendent and others – Voices is advocating for a number of policy proposals, including Medicaid expansion, increased funding for mental health services and the state’s First Class Pre-K Program, and more.
Rhonda Mann, executive director for Voices, told Alabama Daily News that increasing funding for various state programs was essential, as the ongoing shortage of both teachers and mental health workers could severely impact Alabama’s youngest residents.
Teacher shortages have been an ongoing problem in Alabama, as has mental health worker shortages, with the state having just one mental health worker for every 920 residents, the 51st lowest rate in the country.
“Having enough workers, having enough teachers, that is a huge problem; we have a lot of shortages in our state and we’re having to work around that right now, but unfortunately, our kids can’t wait,” Mann said.
“Our mental health (worker per Alabamian) ratio needs to be around 200-300:1, so we’re way off where we need to be. Mental health is a really important issue, mental health (problems) could show up as early as two or three years old.”
According to a 2022 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Alabama children fared worse economically in recent years when compared to more than a decade ago in eight out of 15 economic security metrics.
While the overall poverty rate in Alabama has decreased slightly, dropping from 16.1% in 2000 to an average of 16% between 2016 and 2020, the childhood poverty rate increased, jumping from 21.5% to 21.7% during the same time frame.
Children in poverty under age five increased as well during that same time frame, growing from 23.7% to 25.4%, as did every other age group under 18. Children in “extreme poverty” jumped slightly from 10.2% to 10.4%.
Mothers with young children who were employed jumped to 64% from 56.6%, as did the number of children living in single-parent households, jumping from 29.6% to 31.1%.
‘Call to action’
At a State House meeting last week, child advocates shared their priorities with state department heads.
When asked what their single-largest priority was for this year, Mann told Alabama Daily News it was expanding Medicaid.
“Medicaid expansion will help fill the gap for working Alabamians and provide health insurance for about 300,000 working Alabamians,” Mann said. “You’re talking about your hairdresser, or people that wait on you in restaurants; these are working Alabamians, they’re not people sitting back asking for a handout.”
As it relates to children, roughly 3% of Alabama youth have no health insurance, a comparatively small number largely due to the Children’s Hospital Intervention & Prevention Services (CHIPS) and the ALL Kids programs, which both offer health care services to children in lower-income families.
Beyond expanding Medicaid, approving the $49 million request from the state Human Resources Department to fund the Quality Rating and Improvement System – a program that helps improve early childhood care and education programs – was another high priority for child advocates.
Additional funding for the First Class Pre-K Program was another high-priority item, with Voices pushing to increase the program’s funding to add approximately 100 classrooms.