No change in Minnesota's child poverty rate

Courtney Peterson and her children on the street i
Courtney Peterson, 24, stands with her daughter Zoey and son Kaiden amid all their belongings on a street in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

New data released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau offer 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. 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.

Chart: Child poverty stubbornly high in Minnesota

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.

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"Last night we slept outside," Peterson said, looking down at Zoey. "She's four months old. She shouldn't be sleeping outside."

Nobody answered the phone.

Peterson says 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.

Peterson and her children
Courtney Peterson, 24, is concerned about the effect living in poverty might have on her son Kaiden, 5, and her daughter Zoey, 4 months
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

It was "one odd camping trip," she said. "I let him sleep on my big duffle 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 says 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. 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," she said.

Also, many people who have kids are in their mid to late 20s -- an age at which there's higher unemployment.

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

Allison Churilla
Allison Churilla is a research scientist at Wilder Research.
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

"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. 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," Churilla said.

Nancy Stachel
Nancy Stachel is the principal of Maxfield Elementary School in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

At Maxfield Elementary, principal Nancy Stachel sees the effects of poverty up close. Last year, out of Stachel's 400 students, only eight lived in families with incomes above the poverty level -- about $23,000 for a family of four.

"I think the biggest piece that people probably don't think about is the anxiety," Stachel said. Kids living in poverty worry about everything from where they'll live to whether their siblings are ok-- and that makes it hard to concentrate.

"We may have a child that we're finding is acting out at the end of the day," she said. "It's because they're going home and there's no food."

On the street in St. Paul with her phone, Peterson has found a shelter that will take her for the evening, and is waiting for a taxi. Five-year-old Kaiden is restless, reaches into someone else's bag, and Peterson stops him.

"That's not your stuff, but we will get your own stuff soon, OK?" She tells him.

"Yeah," he replies.

"I told him if you go to college, you can get a car, because he loves cars. And a picket fence, and a wife," Peterson said. "The whole nine yards."

Peterson is optimistic that in the long run, her kids will be OK. The taxi arrives. They load up their belongings, and head for a warm place to sleep.