STEELE COUNTY – The amount of students in Steele County who qualified for free or reduced lunch in the county's public school systems dropped during the 2018-2019 school year, according to data from the Kids Count Data Book.

The annual report, released on Monday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, shows that 38.5% of K-12 students in Steele County were approved for free school meals last year, dropping from 39.2% the previous year. While the statistic is still higher than the overall percent in Minnesota, Steele County appears to be following the same trend of a nearly 1% decrease. In the 2018-2019 school year, 36.4% of Minnesota students received free school lunches, a .8% decrease from the previous year.

The census centers around five areas to determine the overall well-being of a child: financial, health care, safety, early childhood, and K-12 education. Across the board, Steele County statistics have remained relatively the same since the previous census, with most areas remaining within a half percentage point of the previous recording year. Areas that saw the biggest improvement, however, include prenatal care, medical assistance, and teen pregnancies. Areas that saw the biggest decline include child abuse or neglect and the public high school graduation rate.

The Kids Count Data Book reports Steele County’s child population at 9,300, with an 11.4 per 1,000 birth rate.

In the most recent data available for children whose mothers received inadequate prenatal care, Steele County dropped from 6% in 2016 to 5.1% in 2017. That is significantly lower than the statewide statistic that shows 10.9% of Minnesota children’s mothers received inadequate prenatal care in 2017 and 2016.

Almost 2,000 less Steele Countians enrolled in monthly medical assistance in 2018, totaling an average of 4,056. Though the county saw a decrease from the previous year, throughout the state the was an increase of more than 9,000 on average monthly enrollments.

The most recent data for children born to teen mothers shows that Steele County had two per 1,000 in 2017, dropping from 8.7 the year prior. The state statistic shows an average of 1,581 children are born to teen mothers per 1,000 — or roughly 5%.

In the areas that Steele County declined, the rate of child abuse or neglect rate per 1,000 increased in 2018 to 2.7, up from the 2.2 total in 2017. Though the overall state rate improved by almost a full point, the state average is still more than double the local average at 5.8 per 1,000.

The public high school graduate rate in Steele County decreased by more than 6% during the 2017-2018 school year, though 83.2% recorded is identical to the statewide rate. In the school year prior, Steele County was 6.6% higher for public high school graduation than the statewide rate at 89.3%.

According to the Data Book, Minnesota ranks fourth in the nation for overall child well-being, improving in economic well-being and education rankings from 2018. Despite the high ranking, children of color and American Indian children in Minnesota experience vast disparities in outcomes, ranking Minnesota among the worst in racial disparities.

“While Minnesota has consistently ranked towards the top compared to other states, when we disaggregate the data by race and ethnicity, we find out state has some of the most pronounced disparities in outcomes for the children,” said Bharti Wahi, executive director of Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota (CDF-MN). “In order to build a strong state and build for a strong future, we must address these disparities as our state continues to grow in racial and ethnic diversity.”

In the 2019 legislative session, CDF-MN advocated for policies that would reflect a stronger investment in the needs of every child and family in the state. The legislature passed several measures including family-friendly improvements to comply with federal regulations for the Child Care Assistance Program and $4 million over four years to create the Community Solutions Grant Program to invest in strategies to more meaningfully support and leverage the strengths and assets of children of color and American Indian children from prenatal to age eight.

The Legislature also approved a $100 increase to the Minnesota Family Investment Program cash grant, expansion of the Working Family Tax Credit, and $1,6 million for outreach to undercounted communities — including young children — for the 2020 census.

At a meeting in Brooklyn Center on Thursday to kick off the Kids Count Coffee Tour, Gov. Tim Walz told the group that the children’s cabinet he formed earlier this year is tackling the disparity issues.

“There is an absolute unwavering desire of the partners in this room and this administration that this will be the state that is the best place in the country for a child to safely and happily grow up in,” Walz said, according to MPR News. Walz also stated that the data in the report will help drive decision-making at the State Capitol.

MPR News also reports that Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, who was once the executive director of the CDF-MN, stressed the importance of participating in the 2020 census, stating that many of the groups with the greatest need of resources have been historically under-counted.

The 2019 Kids Count Coffee Tour will make a stop in Owatonna on Jan. 19 at the Southern Minnesota Initiative beginning at 11 a.m.

Reach Reporter Annie Granlund at 507-444-2378 or follow her on Twitter @OPPAnnie. ©Copyright 2019 APG Media of Southern Minnesota.

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