Shared vision needed to combat poverty

It’s hard to imagine that one out of every 10 Minnesotans is now living in poverty. For a family of four that’s an annual income of about $23,000 or $442 per week.

In the last 10 years, poverty rates grew by 3 percent in Minnesota. What’s most surprising is that it’s no longer confined to the inner city. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, an estimated 11 percent of Minnesotans live in poverty. That’s roughly 587,000 people or the combined population of Minneapolis, Rochester and Bloomington.

Minneapolis and St. Paul still lead the way at more than 22 percent each, but suburban growth demonstrates it’s not just confined to the Twin Cities. In Burnsville, 8.1 percent of the population is living in poverty. In Bloomington, 7.3 percent live at or below the poverty level. In Chaska, on the western-most edge of the metro, 7.6 percent of the population is living at the poverty level.

The proliferation shows up virtually everywhere: St. Louis Park, 8.2 percent; Spring Lake Park, 8.2 percent; Maplewood, 10.6 percent; Coon Rapids, 7.6 percent; Isanti, 9.9 percent; and Richfield, 11.8 percent. And it can be even tougher in greater Minnesota. Morrison and Mille Lacs counties each have more than 12 percent of the population at or below the poverty level.

Here’s where it gets really concerning. More than 16 percent of Minnesota’s children under the age of 6, our future leaders, are living in poverty. And a stunning 35 percent of African Americans in Minnesota live in poverty. The poverty rate for all people of color is a staggering 26 percent.

The first place this usually impacts a family is at the dinner table. From 2008 to 2010, food shelf visits by metro families in need jumped by 97 percent, according to Hunger Solutions. Without an adequate food source, everything else breaks down.

Clearly proper nutrition is critical to early development and the learning ability of children, especially in the first three years of life. Without it, more children struggle and fall behind in their development. The growth in food shelf use has put a tremendous strain on local food shelves, not only in keeping shelves stocked, but also in their ability to staff facilities.

Part of the solution is to show genuine concern for fellow citizens. All Minnesotans can do something to make life better for those in need. It can start with volunteering at food shelves, homeless shelters or through church and civic organizations that seek ways to teach others to be more self-sufficient. In 2010 more than 1.5 million Minnesotans volunteered their time to help others. That equated to roughly 170 million hours of time. Almost 30 percent of that time was spent collecting and distributing food to those in need. Volunteerism is not only valuable in combating poverty, it creates compassion and understanding among community members. It makes this a better place.

Perhaps the greatest weapon in the arsenal, though, is education. Understanding the consuming nature of poverty is the first step in fixing the problem. If it’s not understood it cannot be fixed. Left unchecked, it will create more problems for everyone.

With help from parents and families, the education of our children will be the best and most effective way to slow and reduce poverty in Minnesota. An educated population is one that is valuable to the workforce, has the ability to overcome obstacles and makes society stronger. Education offers the most direct path out of poverty. But it takes personal sacrifice, not just by students, but parents, grandparents, guardians, teachers – everyone who has an impact on children.

Minnesota schools spend more than $11,000 per pupil each year, yet many high schools struggle to graduate students in four years in part because of poverty’s continued impact on the family at the secondary level. In fact, there are more than eight suburban districts that have a four-year graduation rate below 80 percent. Other states have already discovered that higher per pupil spending does not necessarily equate to better results. The key is identifying at-risk students early and making sure effort is made to help them succeed with a variety of different state and federal programs that keeps the focus on the individual and ultimately directs them on a path toward college.

That’s important when considering that by 2018 Minnesota employers are expecting that 70 percent of the jobs here will require education beyond high school, according to a Georgetown University study. While a high school graduation may have translated into a good job in 20th century, a college-educated workforce will be necessary for Minnesota to be competitive from this point forward.

We have some work to do, but it is achievable. Right now fewer than 19 percent of Brooklyn Center’s adults possess a bachelor’s degree. The same is true of adults in Isanti County, where 16 percent have a bachelor’s degree. And in Mille Lacs and Morrison counties, only 15 percent of adults have a bachelor’s degree. Education is the foundation upon which this state’s future success will flourish or fail.

People will ultimately make the real difference in this campaign. If we don’t care, who will? Through a renewed commitment to education that reinforces knowledge as a means for a better life, students who are living in poverty can discover that there is hope and that they have value. But it must be a shared vision, one that all Minnesotans recognize as critical to the continued success of the state.

An editorial from the ECM Editorial Board. The Stillwater Gazette is part of ECM Publishers, Inc.