by Felicia Stewart

I have a glass-half-full perspective on things, so I was encouraged to see that Alabama had climbed up from the fourth to the sixth poorest state in the nation on the latest Alabama Poverty Data Sheet.

While we should appreciate that tiny step, we should have a greater sense of urgency about the 14 counties that maintain a poverty rate of over 30 percent.  Further, with the federal poverty level for a family of four at a mere $24,257 of annual income, the number of families in Alabama that live above the poverty level yet still struggle to make ends meet is daunting.

I worked in business for 20 years, and I often convinced clients to make purchasing decisions based on return-on-investment (ROI) data I’d compiled.  In the real estate business, investment returns are often dictated by the critical “location, location, location” decision.  Similarly, to address poverty in our state, our most reliable investment is education, education, education.

We must aggressively grow the infrastructure and funding for Alabama’s First Class Pre-K.  Students who have the opportunity to participate in these programs are adequately prepared for kindergarten, are less likely to repeat a grade, are less likely to require a special education placement and perform better in critical reading and math metrics than peers who did not have pre-k access.

For every $1 we invest in high-quality pre-k, we receive $7 in cost savings from a host of public assistance expenditures – healthcare, criminal justice, and other services.  Whatever business you’re in, that’s a sound dividend.  Additionally, with more than 30 percent of Alabama’s children in single-parent homes, if more pre-school age children are being educated in safe places during the day, more parents can find stable employment, require less public assistance and have more income to spend in their communities.

The cherry on top? Ultimately, we have a more educated, innovative workforce to attract the kind of sustaining industry that “cheap labor” has not.

On the other side of the pipeline, we must broaden our traditional definition of “college” and create a path for all Alabama students to achieve a post-secondary certification or degree.  With the rapid growth of healthcare, technology and hospitality sectors, there are myriad IT, business, tech and service-related certifications and associate level degrees that our state’s community college system is equipped to provide—we must ensure that our students can and do take advantage of them.  Finally, we need to create new and strengthen existing partnerships with employers to provide apprenticeships, internships, and job-placement resources to help Alabama’s students build the necessary experience and cultivate critical relationships that will help them move permanently from poverty to prosperity, taking future generations with them.

We should all expect a better return than a ranking of 44 in any category related to the quality of life in the state that we love.  Our children want us to expect great things, and we should bet on them.  We should be all in.

Felicia Stewart is a community activist and volunteer with Alabama Possible’s Cash for College program.