“We used to be okay with the totals, and then we started breaking them down by race and ethnicity and all of a sudden we were seeing a lot of gaps in outcomes and achievements.” Rhonda Mann, Interim Executive Director at Voices for Alabama’s Children
Since 2000, the total number of people living in Alabama has grown by 9.4 percent while the number of children in the state is down from 28.2 percent to 25.1 percent. Combined with the fact that those over 65 are growing faster than any other group, this trend means the state and companies are facing a future shortage of workers. But how do those statistics translate into the need to advocate for a higher standard for childcare or better access to healthy foods?
Voices for Alabama’s Children focuses on research, public awareness, and advocacy. The heart of their strategy and success is their ability to leverage data to educate others on the areas of highest need and to understand the root causes behind issues such as a declining birth rate. “The very center of all the work that we do is based on a solid foundation of research and data,” said Mann. “The research helps us understand if there is a need, and the data actually tells us the extent of the need.”
The Kids Count project is both a state- and national-level initiative. In Alabama, the Kids Count project reports on over 60 indicators for all 67 counties – tracking everything from infant mortality to children in poverty to the number of deaths of children. It aims to provide high-quality data and trend analysis so that all parties are able to have a non-partisan, evidence-based conversation about children’s issues. Tracking these indicators also helps to identify “where we can do the most good and where low-hanging fruit exists,” said Mann.
But the indicators are just the beginning of a larger equity conversation. “We’ve gone to the Department of Public Health and asked ‘Why are black babies dying at such high rates?’ It’s not just one thing but you have to know that poverty plays a role. Access to healthcare in a rural setting plays a role. Education could play a role. Access to healthy food is going to play a role. Our indicators don’t stand alone, they’re interwoven. There’s not one thing that causes it, and there’s not one solution to fix it all, but we have to start somewhere.”
When African American soldiers came back from war in the 1940’s, they were not allowed to buy houses in certain areas of Alabama, even if they could afford it. The laws, rules, and structural barriers that were set up historically have had a disproportionate impact on low-income communities – especially among people of color.
“So they could fight, but they couldn’t to buy a house,” said Mann. “Our history kept certain populations at a disadvantage.” The data, however, has helped Voices for Alabama’s Children to begin having a conversation that goes beyond the stereotypes and help explain the impact of the structural barriers established.
“We often want to say if someone couldn’t find a job ‘Well that’s not right. I’ve heard there are a lot of jobs.’ But what we fail to understand and recognize is that not everybody lives in town. Not everybody has access to transportation, whether it’s their own or public. If you live in a rural area, your access to resources can be greatly diminished. We don’t understand because it’s not always our reality. We have to look beyond indicators that allow us to blame the person and instead look at structural barriers.”
Though the progress in establishing early care and education standards in Alabama has been slower due to the lack of funding, Mann said that finding partners with the same policy priorities has been a key to their incremental success. For example, in their campaign for more funding for Pre-K education, they identified that the business community also had a stake in the issue. The business community recognized that the quality of their future workforce was dependent on the quality of today’s education. Similarly, in their campaign for healthy food access, having the support of the American Academy of Pediatrics proved to be successful.
“It was a different voice that decision makers were hearing. It wasn’t a single child advocacy organization. You have pediatricians now echoing us about how the need for intervention and warning about the impact of inaction,” said Mann.
With assistance from a grant from Voices for Healthy Kids, Voices for Alabama’s Children has taken on the task of improving the minimum standards for nutrition and physical activity and limit the amount of screen time for children in early care and education centers. Given that 66% of children in the state have both parents in the workforce and more than 1.8 million Alabamians, including half a million children, live in communities with little to no access to healthy food options, addressing standards in childcare facilities is the crossroad between the data and the disparity. Not only would this policy change address issues such the prevention of diet-related diseases, it would begin to address the disparities in health outcomes. “We’re here to speak for children,” said Mann. “And their health and well-being are our priorities.”