Community groups focus on fighting child poverty

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WILLMAR — Willmar's young people have lots of things going for them — programs for early childhood education, neighborhood parks, a large new playground at Robbins Island, outdoor activities.

But more is needed.

About 50 people met Tuesday in a Grow Our Own community conversation to discuss ways the community could overcome child poverty. The meeting was sponsored by Willmar Lakes Area Vision 2040, the Willmar Area Community Foundation and Southwest Initiative Foundation.

The attendees watched some informational videos about child poverty and then discussed what Willmar is doing for young people.

In a videotaped interview, Southwest Initiative Foundation President and CEO Diana Anderson spoke with Robert D. Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Putnam said growing economic and cultural disparities have developed in recent decades, and they could affect the country for years to come.

"Within living memory," young people could succeed, regardless of what their parents did or how much they made. That is no longer the case, he said.

The cost to society of leaving some people behind is great, he added. Even the most talented poor kids are usually bound to be less successful because of cultural and economic barriers.

As a result, society will miss out on those young people's potential inventions and scientific discoveries, Putnam said. "My kids are going to be poorer if we don't help those kids."

Economic development organizations and community foundations can play a role in fighting child poverty, Putnam said, because the effort is important to a community's future. They also have networks that can share information across the country.

This growing gap is true across the country, but Minnesota's is not as bad as that in some other areas. Minnesotans have "a long tradition of working together to solve problems," he said, so it's a good place to start trying to address child poverty.

After the video presentation, Anderson spelled out some statistics.

The 30 southwestern Minnesota counties in the Southwest Initiative Foundation's area have 11,000 poor children, more than one in six. The poverty level in southwestern Minnesota has increased from 7.9 percent in 2000 to 10.5 percent in 2015. In Kandiyohi County, it's increased from 8.9 percent to 10.9 percent in that time.

More than 61 percent of students in the Willmar School District are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, meaning they live below 185 percent of the federal poverty level.

In Willmar, 399 children younger than 5 live in poverty, a rate of nearly 31 percent.

Almost 19 percent of southwestern Minnesota high school students have a parent who has been in jail or prison.

Children need five pillars to be successful, Anderson said — stable families, quality early childhood education, engaging K-12 education, safe and caring communities and help finding career pathways.

She asked the group to take a few minutes to discuss what opportunities Willmar has for young people.

In addition to the items above, participants mentioned the United Way's Imagination Library, faith communities that can help mix across cultures and economic situations, a new elementary school to ease overcrowding and a new children's museum. Food support programs and a quality public library were listed, too.

Asked what is missing from the community, the group talked about backpack feeding programs and access to quality child care and mental health services for children, and also talked about eliminating activity fees in the schools so there would be no barriers to low-income kids.

Larae Mikkelson, a parent educator for Willmar Public Schools, said she was concerned about economic disparities that exist in the local jail, too. An inmate who wants to keep in contact with his or her children needs a phone card. If they don't have the money for a phone card, they can't call. Inmates with more family support can get the money for phone cards and stamped envelopes, she said.

"If we know having a parent in jail is bad for kids, we need to work on that," she said.