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Kara Arzamendia, research director for the Children's Defense Fund-Minnesota, explains Thursday morning the results of the group's 2009 Minnesota Kids Count data book, which emphasizes successful building blocks for children. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Beltrami County ranks third in state in children in poverty

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Nearly a quarter of the children in Beltrami County live in poverty -- twice the state rate.

Beltrami County's 24.1 percent of children who are poor ranks the county third in the state, behind Mahnomen County at 31.2 percent and Clearwater County at 24.4 percent, according to the Children's Defense Fund-Minnesota's Kids Count data base.

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"This year we framed a lot on poverty," Kara Arzamendia, CDF-MN research director, said Thursday morning to about 40 local children's advocates and social services agencies staff. She briefed them on the Children's Defense Fund's 2009 Kids Count Data Book, including a breakout of Beltrami County data.

"Unfortunately, poverty affects all no matter what age, but for kids it's damaging, especially those from 0-5 as prime development years," Arzamendia said. "Poverty puts them at risk of poor health, low academic achievement and delinquency."

Statewide, the percentage of children living in poverty grew almost a third from 2000 to 2008 with an estimated 26,000 additional children joining poverty rolls during that time, she said, with a poverty rate of 12 percent for children in 2008.

The number of children living in poverty in Beltrami County was 2,560. The rate in 2000 was 21 percent, with 2,242 children living in poverty.

The rate of children receiving free or reduced price lunch in Beltrami County schools rose to 56.4 percent from 51 percent in 2000, and children receiving food support rose from 22 percent to 33.5 percent.

Statewide trends showed similar but not as drastic losses, Arzamendia said.

As a good sign, she said, there has been a 37 percent decrease in the number of determined child abuse and neglect cases since 2002. That may be attributed to implementation of a state program, Family Assessment Response. A similar trend was seen in Beltrami County, with the rate of cases per 1,000 children declining from 13 to 9.7.

"When families are economically secure, children are more likely to be healthy, succeed in school, commit fewer crimes and become productive contributing adults," she said. But poverty can provide "a toxic stress that can permanently damage children."

Minnesota now has 148,294 children living in poverty, statistics garnered before the current recession, she said. New estimates with the recession could add 44,000 to 56,000 more kids to the total.

"Income drives every indicator," Arzamendia said, such as children living in poverty or uninsured children.

She said 88,000 children in Minnesota have no health insurance, amounting to about 7 percent. About 13 percent lacked consistent health insurance over the past year.

"Without health coverage, a child is 20 to 30 percent more likely to go without immunizations, medications and basic dental care," she said. "Uninsured children are more likely to miss school and to experience costly hospitalizations. Too often low-income children without health coverage are forced to wait until a health problem becomes an emergency before receiving treatment."

Education and outreach are needed, Arzamendia said, as all children living below the poverty line are eligible for fully subsidized health coverage. The federal poverty guideline is $21,834 or less in annual income for a family of four.

Working poor with children also have high child care costs, she said, adding that quality child care for an infant costs about $13,000 a year.

That's roughly twice the cost of annual tuition at Bemidji State University, said BSU early childhood Professor Dan Gartrell. There are state subsidies available for child care but the waiting list is long and the program "grossly underfunded," he said.

Minnesota ranks 50th in affordability of child care for school-age children, Arzamendia said. "It is unfortunate how unaffordable the state is for families."

Public education is also troubling, she said, as graduation rates of white children rank favorably with the national average, but minority children graduation rates do not.

"Education builds a foundation for children, and there is a high rate of return with $8 for every $1 spent returning to society," she said. "But Minnesota spends $113 million on the achievement gap, to make up for children being unprepared when they enter school."

Some other Beltrami County findings:

- Average monthly enrollment of children in health care programs in 2007 -- 4,877 in Medical Assistance and 628 in MinnesotaCare.

- Tax households which claimed the Earned Income Tax Credit in 2007 was 3,965 with a total value of $7.94 million.

- Children in out-of-home placement grew from 21 for every 1,000 children to 23, or 232 children to 264.

- Children in Special Education rose from 15 percent or 1,126 to 16 percent or 1,158 children.

- Children arrested for a serious crime dropped from 31 per 1,00o children or 170 to 27.6 or 137 children.

CDF-MN hopes to create more awareness of public programs in seeking to get more people who are eligible enrolled in them, said Elaine Cunningham, CDF-MN outreach director.

She told about CDF's Bridge to Benefits program that does initial screening of families for edibility in a number of public assistance programs. They include Medical Assistance, MinnesotaCare, child care assistance, energy assistance, school meals, Earned Income Tax Credit at the federal level and Working Family Tax Credit at the state level.

"All these programs are under utilized," Cunningham said.

Seventy percent of those eligible for energy assistance don't apply, she said. Fifteen percent of the children eligible for school meals don't apply and 18 percent of families eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit don't take it.

"All are entitlement programs," she said, meaning that if someone qualifies to receive the aid, the government must pay it. "The Legislature responds when they see the need, so we want families to know these programs are out there."

There is a Web site, www.bridgetobenefits.org, that outlines public subsidized programs and allows a person to screen anonymously, she said.

"Our goal is to increase awareness and participation in seven public work support programs and two tax credits," Cunningham said. "We want to improve the economic stability and well-being of low-income families by connecting them to work support programs that help meet basic needs."

Getting more eligible Minnesotans onto the public programs will also bring more federal dollars the state, she said. The EITC brings in $46.3 million annually in federal dollars, food support programs $318 million, energy assistance $145 million, MinnesotaCare $147 million, school meals $109 million and child care subsidies $96 million.

"We want to strengthen communities," Cunningham said.

bswenson@bemidjipioneer.com

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