Beltrami County uses new approach to fight povertyby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
Bemidji, Minn. — On the surface, it didn't seem unusual. The women touring the Northwest Technical College campus in Bemidji, were checking out the enrollment offices and the bookstore.
But this tour was anything but routine.
These women are mostly single moms, all receiving some type of public assistance in Beltrami County and they're enrolled in Beltrami Works, a pilot program to get them out of poverty.
The college tour is one of several opportunities designed to help them make first-hand connections with people and organizations that can help.
Beltrami County in northern Minnesota, has some of the highest poverty rates in the state. Officials have had little success in reducing that poverty rate. At any given time, there are more than 5,000 families in Beltrami County on public assistance.
Kjell Thompson, a single mother with three kids has three part-time jobs, but doesn't make enough to pay the bills. Her goal is to find a career.
"For me personally, it's been life changing," she said.
Thompson says Beltrami Works has helped her identify her strengths and have the confidence to take the next step.
"I would like to take my life one step further and get an education." she said. "But bottom line, I probably wouldn't take the time to do it on my own because I'm busy with jobs and kids and church and everything else that I do. So this is a great opportunity for me."
Thompson says she likes the one-on-one attention she gets through the program. Along with twice- weekly group meetings, each of the participants get their own life coach, someone who gives them advice, feedback and encouragement.
The life coach concept has grown in popularity in the U.S., mostly in the corporate world. John Pugleasa, director of economic assistance for Beltrami County, says the approach may be untested in the area of government human services.
But Pugleasa says the pilot is a chance to try something new to see what works and what doesn't.
"We didn't become one of the poorest counties in the state of Minnesota overnight," he said. "So the programming and the approaches that we take to try and address that in a long term, sustainable and durable way, that's going to take some time, too."
Beltrami Works has its skeptics. It was only narrowly approved by the Board of Commissioners last spring, at a cost of $136,000.
Commissioner Jim Lucachick voted against the program. Lucachick says in a weak economy, it's the wrong time to spend public money on an unproven approach.
"To me it was a very gray concept on how to try to help these folks," he said. "I didn't think it was worth the [money] that we were going to throw at it. This just seemed to me to be very hard to gauge the outcome."
But some county officials see the pilot project as one example of a larger shift in the way county governments works.
Beltrami County Administrator Tony Murphy says for years, the state and federal governments have funneled public assistance money to counties with little real expectation. As long as counties delivered the services, that was all that was expected.
Murphy says the real measure of success is whether those dollars actually help people get out of poverty. With poverty rates in the region remaining steady, Murphy says it's clear the old ways aren't working that well.
"This is the very, very best time to invest in some new ideas because funding for government as we know it is changing permanently. And so we need to be able to be adaptive in ways that allow us to produce results."
For now, there's only anecdotal evidence to measure whether Beltrami Works is effective or not. A more detailed assessment is due at the end of the year.
If Beltrami County's elected officials like what they see, a new group will begin this spring.
- All Things Considered, 11/23/2009, 4:54 p.m.