Poverty in St. Paul on the rise

Poverty is climbing in St. Paul,  and at a much higher rate than in the rest of the state.

In the span of just about one decade — from 1999 to 2010 — 24,000 residents of the city fell into poverty. Today, the total number of St. Paulites living at or below the poverty line is 67,000, or about one in every four people. And children are disproportionately affected.

“We’ve seen poverty increase in the U.S. and in the Twin Cities region, but certainly not as sharply as the increase in St. Paul,” said researcher Allison Churilla of the Minnesota Compass project at the Wilder Foundation’s “Seeing Poverty” conversation today.

Her presentation included a photo of the scenic St. Paul riverfront, with the caption “St. Paul is beautiful”, followed by this graph of St. Paul’s troubling climb.


Nonprofits, civic leaders, and social-service workers filled a room to hear just how prevalent economic hardship is in the capital city.

Among large Minnesota cities, only Mankato and St. Cloud have higher rates of poverty, Churilla said.

One reason for St. Paul’s spike is the city’s decline in jobs. St. Paul continues to see a loss in jobs since the start of the recession, as this chart demonstrates.

“This is uncharacteristic of any other geography that we’re tracking on Minnesota Compass,” Churilla told me in an email. “St. Paul stands alone in experiencing continued job loss since the start of the Great Recession.”

And similar to other areas across the state, people of color are three times more likely than whites to experience poverty.

The data show that low income levels have a bearing on math and reading proficiency, high school graduation rates, and life expectancy.

Robin Hicks, a counselor  to African-American youth, talks to a woman attending the "Seeing Poverty" discussion hosted by Hicks' employer, the Wilder Foundation. (MPR photo/Laura Yuen)

Robin Hicks, a youth counselor at Wilder, could have been another statistic. She was born to a 13-year-old mother, and became a mom herself at age 16. By the time she turned 18, she was a seasoned gang member who had been stabbed five times and shot in the back, she told the crowd.

Nor did she have the kind of life skills and knowledge that many financially stable families impart to their young.

“I was not taught about saving money, having good credit, keeping a job, having good work ethics, or how much education could mean in a life,” she said.

Turning her life around was as simple as deciding her own children were not going to live in the same chaotic environment in which she was raised. She eventually received her master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from St. Mary’s University. Being poor, she said, doesn’t just mean a lack of money.

“Poverty can become a way of life and a mind state,” she said. “If I could rename poverty, I would call it a silent killer.”

My colleague Julie Siple will have more tomorrow morning looking at the latest poverty figures from the American Community Survey.