Unemployment cuts hurt most vulnerable Alabamians
An APR news feature
Alabama is listed as one of the poorest states in the country and a policy change in mid-June may not help.
Governor Kay Ivey joined leaders in over 20 states who plan to end federal unemployment payments as part of COVID-19 relief. Alabama stopped issuing the extra dollars on June 19. Supporters of low-income Alabamians say they are already dealing with problems like a poor education system, food insecurity, and low incomes.
Poverty is no theory for Wanda Bryant.
“Well, I’m going through poverty right now,” she said. “My daughter died about a year ago, so she left me with six kids, three minors and three older ones, and it’s harder for me because it’s really hard to take care of them.”?
Bryant is like any other grandmother who loves and takes care of her grandchildren. Her situation is not one where she can spoil them. It’s a lot more complicated.
“I work two or three jobs. I’m always doing something. I’m always on a time frame, which is not quality,” she said. “Now that they are not in school and working remotely, I have to be at home most of the time, so that is taking money from me.”?
Bryant’s is one of the thousands of families in Alabama in poverty. This means she makes less than $25,000 a year. Alabama’s poverty issues are more than just financial. Food insecurity, poor education systems, environmental hazards all play a part in Alabama’s economic struggles. ?
“In poor areas around this state people don’t have access to clean water, fresh air, and they are always in low-income areas.” ?said reverend Carolyn Foster, Co-Chair of the Alabama’s Poor People Campaign.
She said Bryant’s story isn’t unique. Her organization wants to draw the people of Alabama together against systematic inequalities around the state. Foster said their roots can be traced back to the Civil Rights Movement. ?
“The Poor People’s campaign is a relaunch of Dr. King’s vision for a Poor People’s campaign of 1968. After Dr. King and the movement for voting rights was passed, he turned his attention to those injustices that revolved around poverty issues, particularly for people of color and people who are poor,” she said.?
The Alabama Possible’s 2020 Data Sheet says Alabama is the fifth poorest state in the country. Nearly 17% of Alabamians live under the federal poverty line. That's more than 800,000 people. Around 28% of Black Alabamians live below the poverty line while 32% of Hispanic Alabamians and 12% of white Alabamians live below this threshold. Certain counties always seem to show up when unemployment rates are announced. That typically includes Black Belt counties in Alabama like Wilcox.
Kristie Nix Moore is the Director of Development for Alabama Possible. Their mission is to break down barriers to prosperity in Alabama through education, collaboration, and advocacy. Education is another hurdle that Alabama faces.?
“If they are already in a poor county, and their family members were unable to break that cycle then that’s all they know,” she said, “and don’t realize that there are opportunities available to them out there.”?
When these elementary school students grow up, only 86% of them are expected to have a high school degree. And only 25% will have a bachelor's degree or higher. That and other factors that plague Alabama’s school systems ranks it 46th in the nation for education.
“What we would like to see is more prosperous Alabamians staying in Alabama and making Alabama a better state,” Moore said. “Even if that means educating people so they leave, then that's better than them staying and continuing the cycle of poverty.”?
Despite all the disquieting news about poverty in Alabama, the numbers are slowly getting better. The number of lower income residents in the state have declined over the last several years. For Alabama, it dropped from just over 19% to 16.8% between 2014 and 2018. However, Alabama continues to be ranked in the top 10 of poorest states in the nation. One possible solution is raising the minimum wage, but it hasn’t been easy.
“We had a legislator who immediately went to Montgomery and wrote a bill and got it passed very quickly to nullify Birmingham's own desire to raise minimum wage,” Foster said.?
The bill was signed into law back in 2016 by former Alabama Governor Robert Bentley. It restricts any city and town government to raise the minimum wage in their region. Critics say this and many other laws coming from Montgomery keep 800,000low-income Alabamians in a never-ending cycle of uncertainty.?
“At least I got a roof over my grandkids’ heads,” Bryant said. “I can’t put them in different engagements or take them on vacation. All I can do right now is provide for what is necessary for them to have, but I pray that is going to get better.”?
Bryant volunteers with the Alabama Poor People’s Campaign and looks to change laws in Alabama to assist grandmothers who are guardians over their grandchildren. She said in the state of Alabama, a grandmother doesn’t qualify for any assistance because she is the maternal grandmother. ?
“A few years ago, I and some other people tried to fight for a law for the grandmothers, because we have a lot of grandmothers who are raising their grandkids,” she said. “We tried to pass a law so we can get something.”?
Alabama Possible and the Poor People’s Campaign are just two of many organizations across Alabama that are looking to alleviate poverty in Alabama and uplift the lives of people who’ve been affected by this issue.
These organizations look to find solutions in their own ways, but Foster said their collective efforts will help put Alabama in a better place in the future. ?
“There is strength in numbers, so I do encourage people to get involved,” she said. “Your individual efforts are important but when voices can come together and be amplified is what captures the attention of your elected officials.”
Editor's note: In a clarification of the information from the Alabama Possible Data Sheet-- 17% of Alabamians do live under the federal poverty line, including 800,000 as APR reported. However, the racial breakdown is actually 28% African American and 32% Hispanic-- not the 61% our story originally indicated.