NORTH MANKATO — For the most part, the counties of south-central Minnesota that make up what is known as Region Nine are right about in the middle of the pack when it comes to poverty.
But that doesn’t mean things are good around here. Or anywhere else in the state for that matter.
Representatives from the Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota spoke Tuesday at South Central College. They addressed the most recently issued Kids Count report, the group’s annual look at poverty in Minnesota and things that affect it.
The report, which came out late last spring, shows that between 2000 and 2010, the number of children living in poverty has risen 62 percent. During those same years, the number of children living in extreme poverty — which is 50 percent of the federal poverty guidelines or about $11,000 family income or less — more than doubled from 38,000 children to 81,000.
Locally, the Defense Fund says 14 percent of the region'ss kids are living in poverty, just slightly below the state average of 15.
The number of children receiving help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program also has increased dramatically. Families with children are the fastest-growing group receiving SNAP in Minnesota. Locally, 17 percent of kids in Region Nine counties receive SNAP funding, slightly below the state average of 18 percent.
Region Nine counties have a slightly higher percentage of kids on free and reduced lunches (39 percent locally, 37 percent statewide) and a higher percentage of reports of kids being neglected or abused (5.1 percent locally, 3.5 percent statewide).
One of the key findings, Defense Fund Research Director Kara Arzamendia said, is that Minnesota poverty is increasingly becoming a rural issue.
“Child poverty is not an urban issue at all,” she said, pointing out that half of all Minnesota children living in poverty live outside the Twin Cities metropolitan area.
Oddly, the number of children went down, which the agency says should be concerning to Minnesotans.
“We really can’t afford to lose even one child to poor health, academic failure, poverty or crime,” Arzamendia said.
One area where Blue Earth County is faring well is in the number of children born to unwed mothers. Arzamendia didn’t have exact numbers, but during the last few years, the trend line has tilted steadily downward for the county while remaining stable for the rest of the state.
Also, the county’s population as a whole is faring better than most. The county ranks 82 out of 87 on rankings of how much of its total population lives in poverty.
To combat the rising tide of child poverty, the Defense Fund recommends investing more in early childhood programs.
“You can tell so much about a society by the way we treat our children and how our children are doing,” said the fund’s Alexandra Fitzsimmons.
She said there is a growing body of research showing how harmful poverty can be to children even before they’re born.
Scientists have studied brain development of children born into poverty and have seen that the brains of children of mothers who have been under extreme levels of stress are chemically different than children not born into poverty. Other research has shown that kids born into poverty achieve less later in life.