The Free Press, Mankato, MN

September 20, 2013

Minnesota child poverty rate still high

B.E. County's rate highest of non-reservation counties

By Julie Siple Minnesota Public Radio News
The Mankato Free Press

---- — ST. PAUL — New data released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau offers some good news about the poverty rate in Minnesota: It’s one of only two states — Texas is the other — where the statistics are inching down. But child poverty remains stubbornly high.

Overall, the poverty rate in Minnesota is now 11.4 percent. Blue Earth County’s poverty rate also fell but remains well above the state average at 17.8 percent.

Median household income in Minnesota remained flat, at just shy of $59,000 a year. And child poverty appears to be stuck at about 15 percent.

Courtney Peterson puts a face on those statistics. Standing on the street in downtown St. Paul on Wednesday, comforting her baby with one hand, she dialed her phone with the other, calling Twin Cities shelters, trying to find a place to sleep with her two kids.

“Last night we slept outside,” Peterson said, looking down at Zoey. “She’s 4 months old. She shouldn’t be sleeping outside.”

Nobody answered the phone.

Peterson said she lives on food stamps and $710 a month in disability. She tries not to let her older child, 5-year-old Kaiden, know how much she struggles. When they had to sleep outside, she told him they were camping.

It was “one odd camping trip,” she said. “I let him sleep on my big duffel bag, and I just read to him, and he just went to sleep.”

Now they’re surrounded by bags of clothes, a car seat, and some diapers.

“This is all my stuff,” Peterson said. “I’m scared to actually tell him what’s going on because I’m scared it will affect him more than it already has. He developed anxiety from moving around so much, and not having a stable home like normal people should.”

State demographer Susan Brower said she isn’t sure why the child poverty level won’t budge, even as the economy turns around. But she has a couple of possible explanations. First of all, more and more kids live with a single parent.

“Children who live with one parent are much more likely to live in poverty,” she said. “In fact, 70 percent of all children in poverty live with only one parent. That makes you more vulnerable to changes in jobs, changes in employment, economic downturns.”

Also, many people with children are in their mid to late 20s — an age at which there’s higher unemployment.

Allison Churilla, at Wilder Research, has also been poring over the numbers. She worries about child poverty in part because it can have wide and lasting effects in school.

“When we look at different K-12 measures of proficiency — reading and math — we see that there are these large gaps between lower-income and higher-income students,” Churilla said. “When we look at on-time high school graduation, higher-income students have much higher rates of on-time high school graduation compared to students who are lower income.”

In Blue Earth County, the only area county that surpasses the 65,000-resident threshold where the Census Bureau provides local statistics, the poverty rate dropped just below 18 percent after reaching 19.6 percent in 2011. That 2011 poverty rate was the highest of any Minnesota county that doesn’t contain an American Indian reservation, according to the Minnesota Valley Action Council.

MVAC, which provides services in a broad swath of south-central Minnesota, saw a 4 percent increase in people turning to the agency in 2012 for assistance with transportation, housing, employment and emergency issues despite the declining poverty rate. MVAC also noted that 2012 was the first year the rate declined in Blue Earth County since 2007 and that the number of county residents living in poverty has more than doubled in the past decade — 10,890 last year compared to 5,236 in 2002.

Statewide, 598,000 Minnesotans were living in poverty in 2012 compared to 371,000 a decade earlier. The poverty threshold in 2012 was $11,720 for an individual and $23,492 for a family of four.

This story contains information from Free Press Staff Writer Mark Fischenich.

Minnesota Public Radio News can be heard in Mankato on 90.5 FM or at MPRnews.org.