New census data: Some of state's poorest counties in northwestern Minn.by Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
Bemidji, Minn. — New census data shows some of the state's poorest counties are in northwestern Minnesota, where living wage jobs are limited and geography isolates rural residents.
Beltrami County is one region with concentrated poverty where officials are examining the future challenges. About one in five people in Beltrami live in poverty — nearly a quarter of all children.
The poverty rate in Beltrami County is nearly 21 percent and need is increasing, but resources are shrinking. Since the recession, the number of people getting some type of public assistance has climbed to approximately 6,000, up from around 5,000.
"The notion that we're going to have business as usual — it's gone," said John Pugleasa, economic assistance director for the county's health and human services division.
For Amanda Vojak, 30, living in poverty means never having enough. The single mother lives with her three children in a trailer park in Bemidji. Vojak constantly juggles her finances, but she's never able to make ends meet.
"I've got piles of bills and phone calls every day, 'I want my money.' And you know what? I don't have it. I'm sorry, you know?" Vojak said. "I'm always over budget and I'm always owing money and I'm always behind.
"I spend a lot of time each month going, OK, I have $90 for the $150 electric bill. OK, well, I guess they'll have to get by on that, you know?"
It wasn't always like that for Vojak. She used to manage a local hotel, making enough to pay her bills and support her family. But two years ago she gave birth to a girl, Abby, who was diagnosed with Down's Syndrome and epilepsy. This summer Abby will undergo open heart surgery to correct a heart defect.
Vojak couldn't keep her job because Abby's health problems require her full attention. Her calendar is usually filled with doctor appointments and several daily sessions for physical, speech and occupational therapy.
Vojak's family gets help from a variety of public assistance programs. She receives money from the Minnesota Family Investment Program, the state's welfare reform program for low income families with children. Vojak also gets assistance for food and medical care.
Vojak hates being on public assistance, and says there's a stigma attached to being poor that's dehumanizing.
"People don't get it until they've been there. And to them, they look at it and go, 'get a job,' or 'you're lazy,' or, you know, 'you just want to sit at home and live on welfare,' or whatever," Vojak said. "I don't. I don't want to be in this place at all, but it's where I'm at in life."
CLIMBING OUT OF POVERTY
Determined to climb her way out of poverty, Vojak is one of about 100 people who have participated in Beltrami Works, a two-year-old county pilot program aimed at helping people do just that.
Through the program, Vojak consults with her own life coach for advice and encouragement on both personal and professional levels. Beltrami Works participants meet a couple of times weekly in group sessions to network and work on becoming more self-sufficient.
Vojak is now a student at the local technical college. She says the Beltrami Works program inspired confidence in herself and helped her focus on and plan for the future, getting away from day-to-day subsistence.
"If I didn't know those things, I would probably have still been living in a complete, utter depression, just trying to get out of bed each morning, instead of thinking, 'OK, what's going to really make me feel good about who I am and what skills I have and how am I going to use them to my advantage to get out of this mess?'" Vojak said.
Experimental programs like Beltrami Works try to do more with less, and to innovate ways to reduce the county's poverty rate, said the county's John Pugleasa.
"We need to ask deeper questions than just, "Are we complying with what the state is asking us to do?' "Pugleasa said. "It's not just the number of people that you're able to go through, it's 'Are they any better off as a result of interacting with us?'"
There's no clear answer to that, and with the program only two years old there's no long term data from which to draw a more accurate conclusion. But Pugleasa sees promise in the life coaching formula.
Census data show the rate of child poverty on Red Lake Indian Reservation is about 45 percent, nearly twice the rate of Beltrami County as a whole. And while 12 percent of whites live in poverty in the county, that number is 44 percent for American Indians.
Rebecca Spears, 47, is an enrolled member of the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe. She lives in a trailer in Bemidji with her 17-year-old daughter. Spears has turned part of her tiny kitchen into a fix-it shop.
Spears makes some money with the occasional repair job, but most of her income is from public assistance. Her father is an Ojibwe from Red Lake. Her mother was a farmer's daughter from Mississippi. The two met in the Air Force, got married, but divorced about the time Spears was born. She says her father was an alcoholic and her mother suffered from mental illness and was abusive to Spears and her siblings.
She grew up in poverty and ran away from home at age 16 and abused drugs and alcohol.
"I was just a damn Indian that was supposed to end up in the gutter anyway," Spears said. "It never occurred to me that I could not be something other than the damn child that was going to be a damn drunk. Nobody ever made it clear enough to me that I could be something other than what I had been."
Spears hit rock bottom a few years ago when she realized she was sexually abused as a child.
"It was completely disabling," Spears said. "I couldn't go to the grocery store without crying. I usually can't make it through a job interview without crying."
Spears points to a glimmer of hope. For the past year, she has participated in Beltrami Works. That's the county program that offers life coaching.
"When I first went there, I didn't speak much. I cried a lot," she said. "I didn't really have any prospects of moving forward with my life. In the last year, I've had a lot of positive feedback and people seem to think I've changed. And honestly, I feel a difference in myself."
Beltrami County officials may expand the Beltrami Works program in 2012. They hope to apply what's worked well to other programs.
It's also unclear how a potential state government shutdown would affect county human service programs.
A TALE OF TWO COUNTIES
Bemidji is Beltrami County's largest city, and in some ways the community is thriving. Bemidji lost jobs during the recession but over time the community has seen new restaurants, big box retailers and shopping centers. It's become an economic hub and a center for health care and education.
"I think it is, perhaps, a tale of almost two counties," said Jim Steenerson, who works with the Northwest Minnesota Foundation, a non-profit with a goal of improving the region's rural economy.
With nearly half of the state's top 10 most impoverished counties in Northwest Minnesota, there are some clear divisions between the haves and the have-nots in Beltrami County, Steenerson said.
Wealthy retirees have lake homes. Young families come to Bemidji for low-paying jobs and many live at or near poverty.
The region lacks manufacturing jobs, and the forest products industry — once a key employer — took a big hit during the recession and put hundreds out of work.
"It's important to try to find ways to regain some of those lost jobs, because that's part of who we are here in Bemidji and Beltrami County and in northern Minnesota," Steenerson said.
There's evidence that the ranks of the have-nots fall disproportionately along racial lines. Some of the poorest communities in Beltrami Country are on the Red Lake Indian Reservation.
In Red Lake, Marv Hanson, director of New Beginnings, a tribal jobs training program, said the population has more than doubled in the past 10 years, to more than 6,000.
Hanson said many people are moving back because they can't find jobs off the reservation. Some have exhausted public assistance resources. Red Lake is exempt from welfare reform time limits. That's because the five-year limit on cash assistance payments doesn't apply to economically stressed communities with high unemployment.
The influx of people is a big challenge for the tribe, Hanson said.
"We don't have enough housing for all of them," Hanson said. "And it puts a strain on the families, because they're coming back and needing to come back to live with family members, because there's no housing. And it also affects the crime rate. It affects everything."
With unemployment on the reservation hovering at around 65 percent, tribal members who return to be with family are coming back to a dismal economy.
"It's obvious that we don't have enough jobs on this reservation to support the population that is unemployed or underemployed or economically disadvantaged. It's just not there," Hanson said. "We've tried to take care of our own, but we've outgrown that capacity.
For policy makers and others, the disproportionate poverty on reservations is often the elephant in the room, says Audrey Thayer, a White Earth Band member. Thayer heads the American Civil Liberties Union's Minnesota Racial Justice Project. She says people are uncomfortable about the level of impoverishment and don't like to talk about it
"I think that people don't want to know and I don't think people want to go there anymore. It's just too depressing," Hanson said. "They don't want to be reminded of the poverty that is all around them."
- Morning Edition, 06/21/2011, 7:40 a.m.