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The most recent edition of VOICES for Alabama's Children Data Book ranks Limestone County the third-best county in Alabama overall, though the organization warns there's still a lot of work left to do.

The report looked at multiple indicators before ranking each county, including low birth weight, births to teenagers, students in prekindergarten, reading proficiency, teenagers who aren't working or in school, child poverty rates, child food insecurity rates and unemployment. Limestone was the highest-ranked county in North Alabama. with neighboring counties Madison, Morgan and Lauderdale ranked eighth, 23rd and 28th, respectively. Last year's edition marked 25 years for VOICES and took a look at past research and analysis, so this year was designed to look at the future.

"We hope that this Data Book can be used as a roadmap toward an Alabama that is safe, secure and more equitable for every child," Stephen Woerner, executive director of VOICES, said in the book's introduction. "... Our data tells us that opportunity is not equally distributed in Alabama, and race, income and geographic location play significant roles in the lives our children lead."

Population breakdown

Limestone County may be among the best for children according to the report, but the report found there were fewer children for whom to maintain that title. The percentage of children in the county and across the state has dropped since 2000.

In Limestone, residents under 20 years old made up less than a quarter of the population in 2018. When broken down further, the report found residents under 5 years old were the smallest subgroup at 22.7% of the child population.

However, population overall increased, and diversity showed significant increase. The report noted the Hispanic population saw the most growth over the last 18 years, tripling in size and making up 7.7% of Alabama's child population in 2018.

Limestone, where the child population was 80% white in 2000, saw growth in its Hispanic population (4.3% to 11.5%), Asian/Pacific Islander population (0.3% to 2%) and children who identify as more than one race (1.3% to 4.4%) from 2000 to 2018.

Improving health care

Perhaps the most positive takeaways from the report were birth and death rates. Alabama has become notorious for its infant mortality rate, but the Data Book revealed a "huge decrease," most prominently for African American infants.

"The most recent analysis represents a massive improvement over the previous years of data," the report said. "This improvement is especially notable given the decreasing number of rural hospitals across the state. ... We are cautiously optimistic that this is the beginning of improvement on this indicator."

Limestone County is considered one of the state's 54 rural counties, and it is one of only 16 rural counties with a hospital that offers obstetric services. Females who received prenatal care by their fourth month of pregnancy and attended at least 80% of their recommended appointments increased from 67.1% to 75.6% over a 10-year period. Meanwhile, pre-term births decreased from 14.2% to 11.1% across the same time period.

This in part has allowed for the infant mortality rate across all races in Limestone County to drop from 10.2 per 1,000 births in 2007 to 5 per 1,000 in 2017.

Other notable health statistics in the report for Limestone County:

• Births to females aged 10–19 dropped from 24.8 per 1,000 births in 2007 to 10.1 in 2017;

• Births to females with less than 12 years of education dropped from 27% in 2007 to 14.2% in 2017;

• 67.7% of mothers in 2017 reported breastfeeding their child at birth;

• There is one mental health provider per 2,484 residents, compared to one per 1,105 statewide;

• 33.6% of the 2015 adult population was considered obese, and 12.5% of the 2016 population had been diagnosed diabetic; and

• Diet-related deaths dropped from 353.9 per 100,000 residents in 2007 to 272.2 in 2017.

Education snapshot

This year's Data Book did not provide much in the way of comparison for education, instead opting to show an overview of recent years in most categories. Here are some of the highlights:

• Only 20.5% of Limestone County children who were age-eligible for a First Class Pre-K program participated in the 2019-2020 school year, compared to 36.7% statewide;

• Around 3% of first-graders and 8.6% of ninth-graders attending public schools in the 2017-2018 school year were asked to repeat the grade, compared to 4.5% and 9% statewide;

• Fourth-graders in Limestone County are slightly above the state average in math and reading proficiency, while eighth-graders are at or slightly below for the 2017-2018 school year;

• Fewer students were labelled chronically absent in Limestone County compared to the state overall in the 2017-2018 school year, but in both categories, students in poverty missed more days;

• Students in poverty were also less likely to graduate. The graduation rate was 86% in the 2016-2017 school year and 81% in the 2017-2018 school year in Limestone County;

• Eleventh-graders averaged one point higher on reading and one point lower on math ACT scores in Limestone County compared to Alabama as a whole, which had 18s across the board during the 2017-2018 school year;

• There were nearly twice as many English language learners in Limestone County during the 2017-2018 school year than during the 2014-2015 school year, and ELLs make up a higher percentage of students in Limestone County than they do statewide;

• The amount spent per student in Limestone County has remained about the same from fiscal year 2013 to FY 2018, even as the state average has increased by more than $1,000; and

• Of all Limestone County students in public schools, 87.2% received college or postsecondary credit, a benchmark score on part of the ACT, a qualifying score on an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exam, a benchmark level on ACT WorkKeys, approved industrial credential or documented acceptance for enlistment into the military. The only other county with a higher percentage was Fayette (91.4%), and the statewide percentage was much lower (75.1%).

Poverty rates

Poverty rates increased in each category since 2000, but Limestone County is several percentage points below the state average in most of them.

The report included individuals living below the federal poverty threshold. In 2017, the federal poverty line started at $12,060 for a one-person household and added $4,180 for each additional person. For example, a two-parent household with two children would have to earn $24,600 or less per year to be considered in poverty.

In Limestone County, 20% of children lived in such a household from 2013–2017, up from 16.3% in 2000. Statewide, the figures were 26% of children from 2013–2017 and 21.5% in 2000.

The Data Book defined extreme poverty as those living in households whose income was 50% or less of the federal poverty threshold. Nearly 7% of Limestone children were determined to live in extreme poverty, and of all Alabama children living in poverty, 47% were considered in extreme poverty.

Compared to the state as a whole, the report found Limestone County had fewer children in single-parent families, fewer employed mothers with young children, higher median household incomes and fewer children suffering from occasional lack of access to healthy foods or enough food.

Making the count

The Data Book used information from several sources, but the most common source was the U.S. Census Bureau. To this end, VOICES of Alabama strongly encouraged everyone to make sure they participated in the 2020 Census.

"It is vital we convey how important the census is to the work that we do and how it affects the work that many of our partners engage in every year," Woerner said.

The report noted low-income households were at a higher risk of undercount in the upcoming census, causing the children who may need assistance the most to suffer the consequences.

"A complete and accurate count of our children and families in the census is the single most effective way to ensure that funding for federal programs is allocated to the places we were need them most," the report said.

It also allows for a more accurate picture of where Alabama stands against the rest of the country. While the Data Book showed improvement in a lot of areas, it noted the improvement was slow and left Alabama at the bottom of U.S. rankings.

"We expect these trends (of improvement) to continue into the future ... but this is not a time to rest on our laurels or pat ourselves on the back," the report said. "Alabama's ranking in the 2019 Kids County Data Book fell compared to other states. Our ranking fell now because the wellbeing of Alabama's children is worsening, but because we are not improving as fast as everyone else."

Visit https://bit.ly/2019ALDataBook for the complete report.

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