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County stats on impoverished kids a mixed bag

WILLMAR -- The economic well-being of children in Kandiyohi County appears to be a mixed bag.

The number of children living in poverty is higher than the state average, at 13.8 percent.

More babies are born to teenage mothers in Kandiyohi County -- 21.9 per 1,000 births, compared to 13.5 per 1,000 births statewide.

But the county has fewer low birth weight babies and fewer mothers receiving inadequate prenatal care.

The county also has more children, nearly 20 percent, whose families receive government food support, formerly called food stamps.

Representatives from the Children's Defense Fund of Minnesota were in Willmar on Tuesday morning to present information from their annual Kids Count Data Book.

More than 30 people attended the presentation at the Willmar Public Library. Many represented area schools or social services agencies.

The report this year focused on children of color and American Indian children. It also listed successful programs working with children, including the West Central Integration Collaborative, which is based in Willmar.

Research director Kara Arzamendia talked about the things children need to get a good start in life.

Research shows that low birth weight babies can be at greater risk for health problems as children and later in life, she said.

Another problem is the chronic stress that is often associated with living in poverty.

It can come from family situations, unstable living situations and poor nutrition. The chronic stress can damage a developing brain, Arzamendia said, but parents are able to overcome the stress by developing solid relationships with their children.

"Safe, positive relationships can prevent or reverse the effects of chronic stress," she said. "This is an asset we see in communities of color."

In surveys, nearly all high school seniors feel that their parents care about them. "Knowing someone cares about you is a powerful thing," Arzamendia said.

Arzamendia said she was surprised by the 27 percent of Kandiyohi County students who change schools during a year, nearly double the state's percentage. Local officials were not. The Willmar School District, in particular, has dealt with the challenges of a mobile migrant and immigrant population for some time.

The Children's Defense Fund offered several suggestions for using the data that had been compiled. Talk to local office-holders and write letters to the editor, she said.

"We can vote, we can be a voice for children that way," she added.

More information is available at the Kids Count Data Center at www.datacenter.

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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