More diverse, higher poverty: What babies tell us about the future South

In states across the Deep South, children of color make up about half of the child population.  

And those children are now two to three times more likely to live in poverty than their white counterparts, according to a new report issued this monthforecasting a potential for growing economic inequality across the region. 

“Looking at how babies are faring today tells us about the foundations being laid for the future workforce, because brain development in the first three years forms the foundation for all learning that follows,” said Patty Cole, senior director of federal policy with childhood nonprofit Zero to Three, which released the 2021 State of Babies Yearbook report this month. 

“Overall, the most concerning factor in Southern states is the high poverty rate for babies of color,” Cole said, particularly the disproportional numbers of Black, Hispanic and Native American babies.  

In most Deep South states, around a quarter of children live in povertyhigher than the national average of about 19 percent.  

But that number masks more glaring disparities 

In Alabama, for example, where about 24% of babies and toddlers live in poverty, Black babies are more than three times as likely to live in poverty as white babies. It’s the same story in Mississippi, where more than half of Black babies live in poverty 

Elsewhere around the South, Black and Hispanic babies experience poverty at disproportionate rates to white babies. In Texas, half of babies are Hispanic and about 29 percent of them live below the federal poverty line. 

“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the littlest among us did not have what they needed to thrive,” said Myra Jones-Taylor, chief policy officer of Zero To Three. “In particular, Black and brown babies and babies in families with low incomes continue to face greater barriers due to significant and systemic disparities.” 

The South lags behind the rest of the nation when it comes to the health and wellbeing of infants and toddlers generally. The report assigned each state to one of four categories that reflect how babies fare in the state overall. Most of the South, including Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, were placed in the bottom category. Tennessee and Florida landed in the next to last category.  

Cole said one reason Southern babies don’t fare as well in a number of areas is because income is the most basic indicator of child and family well-being, and income tends to be lower in the South – and lower still among families of color. 

“Nationally and in the South, income is interconnected with race,” said Cole. “It is fair to say that for babies in the South, the story of lower economic security is one largely of race or, more accurately, structural racism that has limited families of color’s ability to accrue substantial wealth.”  

That economic insecurity “cascades into other problems,” she said, like trouble accessing preventative health care and higher rates of housing instability. In South Carolina, babies who live in low-income families (nearly half of all babies in that state) are six times as likely to have multiple adverse childhood experiences – such as violence or abuse – than their wealthier counterparts. 

Bright spots 

“It is important to note that simply because a state is at the bottom doesn’t mean they aren’t taking steps to improve outcomes for babies and families,” Cole said. 

Gail Piggott, with the nonprofit Alabama Partnership for Children, said that she compared data from the new State of Babies report with its 2019 counterpart to see if recent improvements in state and federally funded programs for families made any difference in the past two years. 

And in some instances, they had, she said. Alabama’s child poverty rate dropped from 27% two years ago to 24% this year. The overall percentage of Alabama babies with low food security is slightly better than the national average and fell more than 4 percentage points since 2019. 

Poverty and housing rates are going in the right direction,” Piggott said. “Housing instability was almost cut in half, down from 10.5% (in 2019) to 6%.” 

She attributes these gains to assistance programs like SNAP, which helps low-income families afford food; Project HOPE, which addresses poor birth outcomes; and increased subsidies that help families afford quality child care. 

“In a state with comparatively few resources, for us to be ahead of the national average and going in the right direction in some areas is such a positive thing for our state,” Piggott said.  

But, she said, improvements don’t disguise the worse outcomes experienced by babies of color. 

There’s a monumental disparity,” she said. “If we look at the demographics on our programs and if (the children seeing improvement) are all Caucasian children, we haven’t accomplished much.” 

Cole noted Alabama’s efforts at improving birth outcomes through Project HOPE and Georgia’s increased focus on infant and early childhood mental health as shifts in the right direction. And Alabama is in the top fourth of states for babies up to date on vaccinations. 

Future forward 

Jones-Taylor said that post-COVID efforts at improving the health and wellbeing of babies will rely on more than a “threadbare” patchwork of support programs. 

“We need our leaders at every level – local, state and federal – to put in place bold, permanent policies that will address these barriers and ensure all children have a strong start in life,” Jones-Taylor said. 

Though Southern states have good programs, Cole said, they often lack the kinds of structural policies that would improve equity for babies and families of color. 

She pointed at the lack of Medicaid expansion; most of the 12 states that haven’t expanded Medicaid to cover more lower-income families are in the South. Expansion, she said, “has been linked to improvements in maternal and infant health.” 

She also said Southern states reach fewer infants and toddlers through the TANF cash assistance program than other states. TANF is a program that helps lower-income families afford basic needs that other programs like SNAP don’t cover.  

“Research suggests there is a correlation between large populations of Black people in poverty and low TANF benefits,” she said. 

As the South grows more diverse and less white, its success or failure is increasingly tied to the success or failure of families and communities of color. 

“When development isn’t as strong as it needs to be and children face gaps instead of opportunities, they begin at a disadvantage and are more likely to lose ground over time,” Cole said. “If not addressed, in the long term these gaps can mean a workforce that is less prepared to take on the challenges our nation will continue to face in the future.” 

The State of Babies report, including interactive maps, is available at 

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