REGIONAL - More than one in six children in southwest Minnesota live in poverty, significantly more than before the turn of the 21st century.

 

A report authored by Beth Mattingly, Andrew Schaefer and Douglas Gagnon from the University of New Hampshire Carsey School of Public Policy found that 17 percent of children in southwest Minnesota are either poor or deep poor, compared with 10.3 percent in 1999.

 

The Feb. 15 report, funded by a grant from the Southwest Initiative Foundation, found that income inequality has grown as well.

 

“In 1999, median family income for those in the bottom 20 percent of SW Minnesota families was $24,746, compared to just $22,500 in 2014. Conversely, median family income increased for those in the top 20 percent, from $129,916 in 1999 to $142,296 in 2014,” the report states.

 

This trend is not much different from the growing inequality U.S. as a whole, the study points out.

 

The report found an additional 23 percent of children live in low-income families above the poverty line.

 

“This is troubling, considering that studies suggest that families need between 1.5 and 3.5 times the poverty threshold, depending on where they live, to meet their basic needs for food, housing, child care, health insurance and medical care, and transportation,” the study said. “This means that more than four in 10 children in SW Minnesota live in families that are likely struggling to meet their basic needs.”

 

The low average hourly wage in southwest Minnesota accounts for some of these statistics. While the average hourly wage in the state is nearly $20, it’s under $15 in southwest Minnesota.

 

However, the low cost of living in this region somewhat offsets the low pay.

 

The report said the estimated annual cost of living for a family of four with two working adults is roughly $60,000 in southwest Minnesota, compared to more than $82,000 in east-central Minnesota and over $92,000 in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area.

 

Southwest Minnesota students also show significantly higher achievement in affluent districts than in poorer districts - another national trend.

 

Another notable finding is that in districts with sizable Hispanic populations, the achievement gaps between white and Hispanic populations are roughly twice the magnitude of the national average.

 

One challenge in southwest Minnesota is the number of people who do not speak English, which includes students and parents. Significantly more foreign-born residents in southwest Minnesota have trouble speaking English than state and nationwide - 26.7 percent don’t speak English well, and 12 percent don’t speak the language at all.

 

Even with all of the region's challenges, the report keeps an optimistic tone, stating southwest Minnesota is “starting from a position of relative strength in terms of poverty and youth engagement compared to the nation as a whole.”

 

Though the white population is aging and seeing declining birth rates, the region is still growing thanks to the large, steadily expanding population of immigrants.

 

The region may see large academic disparities, but it still performs better academically than the national average. Not only that, but the report states the child poverty issue is something that could be fixed. Due to the region’s low population, most southwest Minnesota counties have fewer than 1,500 poor children.

 

“Southwest Minnesota counties have relatively small populations, meaning that relatively small investments can reach a large proportion of the disadvantaged population in ways that might not be possible in other areas,” the report said.

 

Mattingly, one of the authors of the study, spoke at SWIF’s Grow Our Own event in December - a conference aimed at finding ways to help disadvantaged kids succeed. One of her answers to closing the opportunity gap was to invest in early childhood education, an initiative other speakers at the event spoke highly of as well.

 

Eighty-five percent of a person’s brain development occurs by the time they’re 5 years old. Wealthy children enter kindergarten more than a full year year ahead of bottom-third children, having had almost 1,400 more hours of developmental time with their parents who are able to give them attention. Mattingly argued that disadvantaged kids need the extra developmental time in the form of early childhood education.

 

The study had a similar conclusion, stating that: “Children who experience poverty early in life, especially deep poverty, are at risk for deleterious physical and mental health outcomes, as well as lower cognitive scores and academic achievement and increased behavioral problems.”

 

SWIF intends to use the study “to guide community conversations about the opportunity gap and local strategies to close it.”

 

The organization’s goal is to become the leader in closing the gap, according to CEO Diana Anderson.

“Our bold 10-year vision is that by 2026, Southwest Initiative Foundation will position itself as the regional champion and inclusive partner to close the opportunity gap for all our kids,’’ Anderson said.