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Published June 21, 2011, 10:20 AM

New Census Data Show Poverty in NW Minnesota Counties

New census data show nearly half of the state's 10 most impoverished counties are in northwestern Minnesota, where jobs that support families can be hard to find.

By: Associated Press,

BEMIDJI, Minn. (AP) — New census data show nearly half of the state's 10 most impoverished counties are in northwestern Minnesota, where jobs that support families can be hard to find.

The poverty rate in Beltrami County is nearly 21 percent, and since the recession, the number of residents getting public assistance has climbed from about 5,000 to around 6,000, Minnesota Public Radio reported Tuesday (http://bit.ly/jkEWWI ).

"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.

Bemidji is the largest city in Beltrami County, and in some ways it's thriving. It lost jobs in the recession but over time has seen the arrival of new restaurants, big box retailers and shopping centers. It's become an economic hub and a center for health care and education.

But some of the poorest communities in the country are on the Red Lake Indian Reservation, where child poverty is about 45 percent, nearly twice the overall county rate. And while 12 percent of whites live in poverty across the county, it's 44 percent for American Indians. Unemployment on the reservation hovers at 65 percent.

Beltrami Works — a two-year-old pilot program offering life coaching and networking — is trying to help people off and on the reservation climb out of property.

Single mother Amanda Vojak, 30, lives with her three children in a Bemidji trailer park. 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."

Vojak used to manage a hotel, making enough to support her family. But two years ago she gave birth to Abby, who was diagnosed with Down syndrome and epilepsy, and she had to give up her job to give the baby her full attention. Abby will undergo surgery for a heart defect this summer.

Vojak is one of about 100 people who have participated in Beltrami Works so far. She's now a student at the local technical college. She said Beltrami Works inspired confidence in herself and helped her focus on the future instead of 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 poverty, Pugleasa said.

"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 long term data to demonstrate that the two-year-old program is working. But Pugleasa sees promise in the life coaching formula, and the county may expand it in 2012.

Rebecca Spears, 47, is a 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, where she makes some money with the occasional repair job, but most of her income comes from public assistance. She grew up in poverty, ran away from home at age 16 and abused drugs and alcohol.

"I was just a d--- Indian that was supposed to end up in the gutter anyway," Spears said. "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."

But she found a glimmer of hope at Beltrami Works.

"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."