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Kids Count program shows Nobles County needing improvement

WORTHINGTON -- How does Nobles County compare to other counties across the state when it comes to the health and well being of its children?

According to data presented during a Kids Count program in Worthington Wednesday morning, the county certainly has room for improvement.

Jim Koppel, director of the Children's Defense Fund Minnesota, and Carole Specktor, legislative affairs director, presented statistics on everything from the number of children living below the poverty line to the increase in teen mothers and the growing trend of children involved in serious crime.

Compared to the average Minnesota county in the last decade (statistical data from 1995 through 2004), Nobles County earned poor marks in seven of the nine categories -- including the number of children living in poverty, receiving free or reduced school lunches, teen pregnancies, low birth weight babies, students changing or dropping out of school and children involved in serious crimes. The county was slightly above average in food support given to children, and below the state average in out-of-home placement of children.

Data for the report was compiled by the Children's Defense Fund (CDF), a non-profit, privately-funded lobbying organization. CDF has three missions -- legislative advocacy, research and education, and tax and benefit outreach.

In 2004, 25 percent of Minnesota's total population consisted of children younger than age 18. Of those children, more than 10 percent are considered to live below the poverty line, which is an annual household income of $20,000 for a family of four. Perhaps more telling is the statistic that 10 percent of Minnesota's homeless population consists of children younger than age 6.

"We know that up to age 5 is a critical time for children and brain development," Specktor said. "The data shows we really need to address the issues."

Information for Wednesday's program was divided into five categories, addressing child needs for a healthy, fair, safe, moral and head start in life.

Relating to children getting a head start in life, Koppel said 60 percent of children in Minnesota have family members who read to them nearly every day. On the flip side, less than half of the children were deemed proficient in math and reading skills during their kindergarten assessment.

"In California, they estimate the number of prison beds they need (in the future) by looking at literacy rates of children in the third grade," he added.

Changing demographics

Specktor said one of the reasons Nobles County isn't doing as well as many other Minnesota counties is its changing demographics. Yet, in comparing the last five years, she identified several positive factors, such as declining rates in teen pregnancies, children dropping out of school or arrested for serious crimes and the decline in the number of out-of-home placements.

Koppel said the reduction of out-of-home placement of children and the success of keeping them in their own home can be attributed to the government-funded targeted case management program. Unfortunately, he said, Congress voted in the last budget cycle to cut approximately $60 million for the program.

"That will have a tremendous effect on Minnesota," Koppel added.

Additional concerns identified during the meeting included the increase in the number of children living below the poverty line in the past five years, more children transferring schools and greater participation in food programs.

Specktor said there are counties with "far worse" indicators than Nobles County, including both Ramsey and Hennepin counties in the Twin Cities metro. Also, northern Minnesota counties that are home to Indian reservations have more troubling issues.

One of the best counties in Minnesota, she identified, is Olmsted, which is Rochester's county seat. Economic factors are attributed for that county's positive indicators.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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