Anoka County ranks high as a place to escape poverty

LaSaundra Dagenais
LaSaundra Dagenais, pictured May 6, 2015, said she moved from St. Paul to Anoka County to give her children better educational opportunities.
Peter Cox | MPR News

A new Harvard study shows that where you live makes a big difference in how easily you can move out of poverty.

Anoka County ranks in the top fifth nationally as a place where children have a better shot to scale the income ladder.

LaSaundra Dagenais moved from St. Paul to Oak Grove in Anoka County because she wanted better opportunities for her children.

Dagenais enrolled her kids in a Head Start preschool program for children from low-income families. Two of three are now in Anoka County schools.

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"I've loved it ever since I've moved up there. The opportunities that my kids have had have been outstanding," she said. "And I just love it. I wouldn't move anywhere else. Until my kids graduate from high school out of Anoka High School, I will not move."

According to the Harvard University study, Dagenais' move to improve the lives of her children stands a good chance of working in the long run.

While there are still major hurdles in climbing out of poverty, the study from The Equality of Opportunity Project concluded that geography plays a big role in shaping future economic status.

A New York Times analysis of the Equality of Opportunity study breaks down county rankings and puts Anoka County in the top 16 percent of counties in the country. A child who grows up poor in Anoka County will make $3,300 more a year by age 26 than a child who grew up poor in an average American county.

Patrick McFarland
Patrick McFarland, pictured May 6, 2015, is the executive director of the Anoka County Community Action Program. The organization seeks to help people move out of poverty.
Peter Cox | MPR News

Patrick McFarland, executive director of Anoka County Community Action Program, a nonprofit that runs Head Start and 22 programs to help people get out of poverty, said that while Anoka has strong schools, there are other factors in play that help people improve their lives in the county.

"We do have some certain advantages," he said. "We're a relatively affluent community, our incomes are relatively high. We can support the poverty population we have."

The New York Times analysis showed Hennepin and Ramsey Counties ranked better than about half of all U.S. counties for future movement out of poverty, but the other metro counties like Carver and Washington ranked in the top 15 percent.

The study seems to support what the Metropolitan Council is seeking to do with affordable housing.

"The council's looking at how to both improve areas that are currently seeing concentrated poverty, as well as how to create opportunities and choices for people who choose to leave those areas and move to higher income areas in the region," said Libby Starling, the Met Council's manager for regional policy and research.

Starling has said that to address the affordable housing need, the Met Council should add 51,000 new units through 2020. Affordable housing costs no more than 30 percent of income.

Affordable housing made a difference for 38-year-old Tony Flowers.

Tony Flowers
Tony Flowers, 38, pictured May 6, 2015, has seen his income grow over the years in Anoka County. He's gone from making $7 an hour to what he said is a steady, middle-class income working as an IT coordinator.
Peter Cox | MPR News

Flowers spent his early teenage years shifting between temporary housing, shelters and streets in Minneapolis with his three brothers and their father. With help from Anoka County Community Action, his family moved to Anoka County and was able to stay there. After graduating from Coon Rapids High School, Flowers got a job making $7 an hour while attending college full time.

"You know, it was a struggle. But me and my wife, we made a bond, and we told each other, 'Look. We're going to make it happen,'" he said.

Flowers finished college and landed an IT coordinator job. Three of his four children are enrolled in Spring Lake Park schools.

"My main hope and prayer for my children is to be better than me, be more successful than I have," he said. "I came from pretty much nothing to providing for my family and I would want them to do the same thing or even better."