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Across region, poverty among children rising at quicker rate than rest of U.S.

WILLMAR -- Kandiyohi County has a higher rate of child poverty than the state or the nation.

So do several other counties in west central Minnesota.

Representatives of the Children's Defense Fund in Willmar Monday said they expect those rates to rise higher as more recent information is received to reflect the impact of the recession.

Information from the CDF Web site indicates that many area counties exceed the national child poverty rate of 12 percent. All of them have higher-than-average percentages of children receiving free or reduced-price school meals, too.

Three CDF staff members spoke about the impact poverty has on children and on their communities at a "Kids Count Coffee" gathering Monday morning at the Willmar Public Library. About 30 people attended the coffee, sponsored by Heartland Community Action Agency.

CDF is a non-profit organization supported by donations and grants. It does not receive government funds. Its goal is to be an advocate for the needs of children, particularly children who are poor or disabled.

Poverty, more than ethnic or racial differences, can have a deep effect on children's development, said Renee Anderson of CDF.

Poverty causes what many researchers call "toxic stress," she said. Inadequate nutrition, unhealthy living situations and other effects of poverty can contribute to the stress.

"A lot of brain growth happens in the early years," she said, and researchers are looking into the impact such heavy stress has on brain development.

Research Director Kara Arzamendia provided some of the hard numbers, focusing on Minnesota and on Kandiyohi County. The group has held similar coffees around the state, focusing on the counties they are visiting.

Kandiyohi County has 14 percent of its children living in poverty, according to the information Arzamendia presented. Minnesota has 12 percent.

Nearly 42 percent of the county's children are eligible for free or reduced price school meals, and 8 percent of them have been abused or neglected. The numbers for the state are 33 percent eligible for school meals and 5 percent abused or neglected.

In most cases, the information available is from 2007 and 2008, she said, and she does expect to see changes in some economic categories as new data comes in.

"We really can't capture what's going on today," she said. "There's always a lag in our data."

In some areas, Minnesota trails the nation. The number of Asian children living in poverty is the highest in the nation, and its graduation rate for black students in the lowest in the nation. The difference between black and white graduation rates is also the largest in the nation.

"Minnesota parents are extremely hard-working," Arzamendia said, but that means many children spend 40 hours or more in child care each week.

On the positive side, the state has seen its high school dropout rate fall from 20,000 students in 2000 to 9,000 in 2007. The rate of abuse and neglect has decreased, and fewer children are being arrested for violent crimes.

Arzamendia told the group about the types of information available the www.cdf-mn, including county-by-county information.

CDF is a grantee of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which tracks the welfare of children through its Kids Count project. An interactive data center is available at and allows its users to build comparison graphs using information from several counties.

The information on the Web sites is the latest available, as it is updated as new information arrives, Arzamendia said.

Ryan Johnson, an outreach specialist, urged the attendees to contact their legislators and members of Congress to urge them to support health care reform that serves all children.

Johnson works with the program Bridge to Benefits, which gives people one-stop information about a low-income family's eligibility for different public assistance programs, along with information about how to apply.

The program's Web site is

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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