New information about poverty from the U.S. Census Bureau shows the economic recovery in Minnesota might be ahead of the rest of the nation.
While poverty rates in the state have increased significantly since 2007, the most recent Minnesota data show poverty rates have leveled off.
Between 2007 and 2011, child poverty rates increased significantly in 36 Minnesota counties. But the number of people falling into poverty started to slow in 2010.
"You start to see if you track the data it was about 2007, 2008 when we saw sharp spikes in the percent and number of children living in poverty in Minnesota," said Kara Arzamendia, research director for the Minnesota Children's Defense Fund. "Over the last year of two since 2010 we have seen a leveling off."
While the poverty rates leveled off in Minnesota, poverty rates nationwide continued to rise from 2010 to 2011. Arzamendia said that indicates Minnesota's economy is perhaps recovering more quickly than the nation as a whole.
Although census data show about 136,000 Minnesotans slipped into poverty between 2007 and 2011, those figures are only a look in the rear view mirror.
Arzamendia said poverty rates are very difficult to pin down because poverty is very local and very personal.
"Families move in and out of poverty. You know, you have a job one day and you don't the next. And you have to deal with that. You live off your savings until you don't have any more," Arzamendia said. "It's very much a cycle and a cyclical thing. But to know a true number of poverty would be next to impossible even if we had real time data."
Census data reinforces much of what's already known about poverty in Minnesota, Arzamendia said. Many of the poorest counties are in the northern half of the state. The highest rate of child poverty is in northern counties that include Indian reservations. In the metro area, Ramsey County has the highest poverty rate.
Dan Frank sees many families living so close to the poverty line that any economic disruption pushes them over the edge. Frank is senior program manager for community and economic development at the Initiative Foundation in Little Falls. The foundation offers a variety of programs in 14 central Minnesota counties.
"You know, a family putting together two non living-wage incomes in order to make one living wage for a family — when you have that situation all it takes is for one of those jobs to be lost or hours cut for some reason," Frank said.
Economic recovery might be a reason the poverty rate is leveling off in Minnesota. But people living in poverty are not always ready to take advantage of economic opportunity, Frank said.
"Even if the economy turns around, the fact of the matter is we have a big job in front of us in terms of getting folks trained and re-trained," Frank said. "Folks that may have thought they were done with school. And yet if they want to prosper in today's economy they need more training, more education."
Frank said education and better paying jobs are key factors to reducing the poverty numbers. But the reasons people end up in poverty are often more complex than simply losing a job, he said.
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