Minnesota is a great place to grow up for many — in fact, the 2019 Kids Count Data Book from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Children's Defense Fund of Minnesota ranks the state fourth-highest in the U.S. when it comes to raising kids.

Minnesota was also ranked highly by the study in several key child wellness categories, including economic well-being (third), health (sixth), family and community (sixth) and education (10th).

The signs are encouraging for Becker County, in particular, which showed significant improvement in several categories over the past year.

"We have fewer children living in poverty, and child abuse and neglect is down significantly," says Liz Kuoppala, executive director of Mahube-Otwa Community Action Partnership Inc. "The high school graduation rate is up slightly, and the number of children being born to teen mothers is down quite a bit."

But this overall improvement in several key areas is not yet quite cause for celebration, she added.

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"We still have work to do — quite a lot of work in some areas," Kuoppala said.

Liz Kuoppala, MAHUBE-OTWA
Liz Kuoppala, MAHUBE-OTWA

Lack of access to affordable child care, health care and dental care continue to be a problem for many families, as are child and family homelessness and a need for more mental health support services geared specifically toward children.

These were some of the key areas of need identified during a recent "Kids Count Coffee" at the Mahube-Otwa offices in Detroit Lakes.

Though much has been done to try to expand the options available locally for affordable child care, dental care, housing and transportation options, there's still a need for more.

"For those families who do still struggle, the struggle is very real," Kuoppala said. "It's not quite time for a victory dance."

Becker County is fortunate, however, because of the many strong partnerships that exist between the various public agencies in the community, as well as with the private sector, she added.

"One of the most excellent things about this county is the public and private partnerships," she said. "We look at what is needed, and what everybody can contribute that they do best, to help a family move forward."

Census participation is key

One way in which everyone in the county can help on an individual level, Kuoppala added, is to fully participate in the 2020 U.S. Census when they are asked to do so.

"So many of the resources we have available in Becker County are based on the number of people who live here," she said. "We want to make sure everyone fills out their census forms so that they can be counted."

Children, in particular children 4 years old and younger, are a segment of the population that are historically "under-counted" at census time. According to the Kids Count study, that is most often due to family custody issues such as children living temporarily with a grandparent or caregiver other than their parent; custody being shared between parents who do not live together; and children living in multi-generational households.

Kuoppala said that it is important for every child living in the county to be counted, not just for access to state and federal assistance programs, but also for local planning efforts related to family housing, school class sizes, day care slots, etc.

"We know so much more now about children's brain development, and how being in crisis (homelessness, neglect, hunger, exposure to trauma, etc.) can impact the way their brain develops," she said. "It can put them at a long-term disadvantage."

More info

More information about the Kids Count Data Book, including data that has been broken down by county, can be found at the CDF-Minnesota website, cdf-mn.org. More information about the 2020 U.S. Census is available online at census.gov.