MANKATO — While the COVID-19 pandemic is putting more financial strain on Minnesotans, a newly released report on child well-being suggests economic stability was already out of reach for many families even before the pandemic began.
Leaders from the Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota shared their findings from the nonprofit’s latest Kids Count Data Book during a media briefing Wednesday. The annual data book both measures key indicators for financial and educational well-being and offers suggestions on how the state can improve.
Between persistent racial disparities and assistance programs not keeping up with family needs, much more improvement is needed, said Jennifer Bertram, Kids Count coordinator.
“The poverty rate has not really changed over time,” she said. “We have not seen families move up and out of poverty and still see major disparities among people of color.”
The report cites data from the American Community Survey showing about 8.2% of white children live in poverty. Nearly all other racial groups have markedly higher poverty rates.
About 57% of Somali children, for example, live in poverty. For African Americans, the rate is about 32%.
To address the disparities, the report describes the pandemic as an opportunity for people to redesign support systems to better serve families. Recommendations include expanding housing vouchers, child care assistance and supplemental nutrition assistance program benefits, as well as raising the minimum wage.
As Bertram pointed out, income guidelines for assistance programs haven’t kept pace with the cost of living. She used the Minnesota Family Investment Program, or MFIP, as an example.
The program provides cash assistance to low-income families. It took 33 years for Minnesota lawmakers to increase the amount families could receive, and even this year’s increase still didn’t keep up with needs, Bertram said.
“That amount just really has not kept up with inflation nor does it reflect the need to cover the most basic needs for families,” she said.
Data on the federal government’s COVID stimulus payments from earlier this year further showed how much households needed the help this year, as well as how the gap between lower-income families and others could be widening even more.
The first round of $1,200 stimulus payments went largely toward daily expenses or debt payments, according to U.S. Census Bureau surveys. About 84% of households used the money for those purposes, while a fraction of the households put it into savings.
“The people at the higher end just put it in savings,” Bertram said. “Whereas people who were struggling paid their rent that month, and what happened the next month?”
With Minnesota set to continue having a divided state government for at least the next two years, partisan politics could continue to prevent much progress from happening. Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota Executive Director Bhati Wahi said child advocates are used to working in that landscape and will come to policy discussions armed with data, facts and the experiences of the people being negatively impacted.
“It’s my hope that we can really get to a place where we’re thinking of things like child care as not a partisan issue but an issue that impacts everybody,” she said.
As for the federal government, Bertram said maybe more traction can happen once the next president takes office in January.
To view this year’s report, visit cdf-mn.org. The nonprofit will hold a virtual coffee tour at the Greater Mankato Area United Way on Jan. 13 to share more local data.