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Clay County sees more children in poverty

MOORHEAD -- Every day, Shanna Grefsrud sees the children who suffer from poverty.

So when she saw that the number of Minnesota children in poverty is up, she wasn't surprised.

"This is no shock to us," said Grefsrud, a coordinator at the Head Start program in Moorhead-based Lakes & Prairies Community Action Partnership. "(The numbers are) a reality to us."

The reality is that nearly 150,000 Minnesota children are living in poverty. In Clay County, 1,674 children are living in poverty - an increase of more than 300 children since 2000.

The numbers, released this month by the nonprofit children's advocacy group Children's Defense Fund Minnesota, were discussed Wednesday by community leaders at a United Way of Cass-Clay meeting in Fargo.

While Clay County has seen an increase in children living in poverty - from 11 percent in 2000 to 13.9 percent in 2007 - similar numbers are reflected across the state, with other counties faring even worse. Thirty-one percent of the children living in Mahnomen are living in poverty, the report shows.

"It's concerning. I don't really know what's going on," said Kara Arzamendia, the research director at CDF Minnesota. "I think we're seeing a deterioration in some of the public programs ... we built up in the beginning of the decade. We haven't kept the investments up in a lot of our programs."

Experts say the bleak numbers are likely to get even worse. A lag in data means these numbers don't reflect this year's economic downturn.

"We were on this upward trend even before the economy went south, so it really worries me what we're going to see in the next year or two when the data rolls out," Arzamendia said. "I'm hoping that policymakers will see that and start to take notice."

The organization estimates that up to 56,202 more Minnesota children could fall into poverty before the economy turns around. It defines poverty as an annual income of $22,050 supporting two adults and two children.

What's more, hundreds more families who don't fit that definition are likely struggling financially, Arzamendia added.

"A lot of families are working harder for less," she said. "It puts (children) on a trajectory and it's hard to escape it."

At Head Start, Grefsrud is all too familiar with poverty's affects on kids.

As poverty has increased in the area, so have mental health issues, she said. "It has a ripple effect."