Childhood poverty rates on the riseby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — A new report on child welfare in Minnesota predicts the number of children in poverty will jump by a one-third over the course of the current recession.
The Children's Defense Fund of Minnesota says while the economic downturn may last only a few months, it will leave a long and troubling legacy.
The organization's annual Kids Count report says more than 26,000 additional children fell into poverty in the first part of this decade. But twice that number could join their ranks during this recession alone.
The total number of kids in poverty in the next two years could top 200,000 for the first time since researchers started tracking the numbers.
"That's a big shift. It's a huge jump in numbers," said Kara Arzamendia, research director for the Children's Defense Fund of Minnesota.
She helped author the report issued today.
Arzamendia says her estimates are based on economic data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank. Those data, in turn, are based on a peak unemployment rate at about 9 percent.
"So, even these numbers are probably conservative, compared to what could possibly happen," she said.
That means this economic downturn would quickly wipe out the gains made in the fight against child poverty in the 1990s, when the child poverty rate fell by nearly half.
There was some good news out of the report, which has real data up to 2007. The instance of child abuse fell by nearly 40 percent over five years. Children born to teen mothers, school dropouts and kids arrested for serious crime also saw substantial declines in Minnesota.
That occurred despite a slow but steady rise in the number of children in poor families over that same period.
Now, advocates for children worry about the effects of a steep increase in poverty. One of them is Barbara Olson, director of the Southside Family Nurturing Center, a social service agency based in a 19th century convent in Minneapolis's Phillips neighborhood, one of Minnesota's poorest.
Olson's agency serves about 240 families a year with preschool, child care and other services.
"For 2008, 57 percent of our families were affected by either functional homelessness -- homelessness per se, being out on the street, moving into shelters, or feeling the impact that soon they would be without shelter," said Olson. "That's up about 15 percent, maybe 20 percent. And that doesn't reflect this last year. Now, we're seeing more families struggling with housing issues."
For many kids, that may turn into opportunity lost forever.
"We have about 50,000 children growing up in poverty [ages] 0 to 5. They begin school about 18 months developmentally behind their peers," said Jim Koppel, regional director of the Children's Defense Fund. "Eighteen months [behind] at the age of 5, and they don't catch up."
Koppel says that may be reflected in graduation rates, family poverty, and racial disparities for decades to come.
- All Things Considered, 10/01/2009, 5:52 p.m.