Children in poverty; study targets Southwest Minnesota

One in six children in southwest Minnesota live in poverty, a study from the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy said this month. Even more children live in families who may be struggling to meet their basic needs.

It’s sobering news, but area communities are using it to start important talks about how to help young people, said Diana Anderson, President and CEO of the Southwest Initiative Foundation.

SWIF commissioned the study on youth poverty as part of its new focus on closing the “opportunity gap” for area children and youth. Developing the next generation of workers and businesspeople is an important part of the region’s economy, Anderson said.

Full results of the study were released Feb. 15, and are available online at swifoundation.org.

“What we’re planning to is use it for community conversations,” Anderson said. “We want whatever solutions come forward to be locally driven.”

Some of the study’s key findings include that 17 percent of children in southwest Minnesota — about 11,000 kids total — live in poverty. An additional 23 percent live in families that are low-income, but above the federal poverty line. The income gap between the highest and lowest-income families in the region has grown over the past 15 years, the report said.

The report also looked at demographic changes in southwest Minnesota, as well as risk factors that would affect children and youth.

In terms of demographics, the number of foreign-born residents in the region has grown since 2000, the report said, and some are struggling with English proficiency. About 12 percent do not speak any English.

The data on educational opportunities in southwest Minnesota has a mix of positives and negatives, the report said. For example, schools in southwest Minnesota have high participation rates for sports, even in poorer school districts. On the other hand, poorer districts in southwest Minnesota also have less access to school counselors. There are also achievement gaps for minority students. At the four school districts in the region with sizable minority populations, achievement gaps are roughly twice as large as the national average, the report said.

The report said less than a quarter of southwest Minnesota high school students report using alcohol or tobacco in the past month, or using drugs in the past year. That’s slightly lower than the state rate, and the report said area high school students also report experiencing several other risk factors — like mental health and domestic abuse — at or below the state rate. At the same time, however, 18.9 percent of high school students reported that a parent had been in jail or prison.

A first look at the study was part of SWIF’s Grow Our Own Summit, which drew hundreds of people to Southwest Minnesota State University in December. Since then, Anderson said, SWIF has received requests from several cities and community groups to hold presentations or community discussions on how to develop opportunities for young people. Anderson said conversations have taken place in cities like Pipestone and Luverne, in area counties, and with community and economic development groups in Marshall.

“We are thrilled, quite honestly,” Anderson said of the level of response the initiative has gotten. “This launch was all about raising awareness.”

Besides raising awareness, Anderson said SWIF is working on ways to help area communities support children and youth.

“At an organizational level, we’re really committed to early childhood,” Anderson said, noting the “critical shortage” of early childhood care in the region.

Last week, SWIF announced it will be offering early childhood care and education grants of up to $5,000, for projects that will benefit kids and families in southwest Minnesota. This will be the second year the foundation has offered the grants, said SWIF program officer Jodi Maertens.

“We had a great response, and we wanted to try again, Maertens said.

Closing the opportunity gap was also the focus of a round of 2017 grants for SWIF community foundation and affiliate partners, said Jeff Vetsch, community philanthropy officer at SWIF. A dozen grants were awarded to partners in area communities like Walnut Grove, Balaton and Lake Benton, for projects that will help support local efforts to close opportunity gaps.

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