Community leaders get ‘snapshot’ of poverty in greater St. Cloud area

Poverty is a problem facing more than 13.5 percent of all people nationwide. That’s about 43.1 million people, according to 2015 U.S. Census Bureau data.

In the central Minnesota counties of Stearns and Benton alone, that number is even higher.

Some 14.5 percent of people living in those areas are living at or below the poverty level. That equates to about 27,000 people.

Of those 27,000, 5 percent are children under the age of 5; 19.9 percent of all children are living in poverty, which is up from 12.4 percent in 2006. Forty-four percent of those living in poverty are female.

There are also racial and ethnic disparities locally — 12.4 percent of the white population lives below poverty level, but the rate is 39.4 percent for Hispanics/Latinos, 49.2 percent for Native Americans/Alaskans and 54.3 percent for the black/African population.

Jon Ruis

These were among the statistics that hundreds of community and business leaders heard from Jon Ruis, president and CEO of United Way of Central Minnesota, who spoke at the 2017 Greater St. Cloud Community Pillars Forum.

The gathering was held Feb. 1 at the River’s Edge Convention Center in St. Cloud.

“What does this tell us?” Ruis asked. “It tells us that poverty in the greater St. Cloud area is all of our issue. We can’t chase away these numbers by saying it’s the student population or it’s the immigrant population. This [affects] all of us living in this region. There is poverty everywhere. Poverty affects all of our pillars and all of our pillars affect those living in poverty.”

Nine pillars

The forum, which seeks to raise awareness about issues facing the greater St. Cloud area, started in 2010 when 40 greater local leaders took a bus trip to Dubuque, Iowa, to learn how the city was successfully using its community assets to plan for the future.

The Minnesota leaders then gathered to create a common vision for the area, which is now known as the Greater St. Cloud Area Pillars.

The nine pillars address arts and entertainment, community engagement, the economy, education, environmental sustainability, housing, infrastructure, safety and wellness.

At the Feb. 1 event, which focused on poverty, each pillar was highlighted in a video presentation, showing both progress within the pillar as well as the continued need to advance its mission.

Step by step

Following the video presentations, Ruis gave a “Snapshot of Poverty in the Greater St. Cloud Area.”

“The question is what do we want to do about it?” he asked. “We have to acknowledge that there are fundamental things going on that we need to look at and try to fix. Solving poverty might be too big for us, but solving problems within this that will affect the people we are working and living with are things that we can do,” he said.

Among those solutions, Ruis said, are providing more educational opportunities, job opportunities, quality daycare programs for single moms, and working to bridge racial and ethnic divides.

Ruis said one takeaway he hoped attendees would leave with is that every person can be involved in the solutions.

He provided a list of ways to support the community pillars that included volunteering at area schools and organizations, contributing financially, attending community functions, shopping locally and even walking or biking in your neighborhood and getting to know your neighbors.

More information is available on the website,

Getting others involved

Since ninth grade, Mary Jo Leighton has lived in the St. Cloud area. When she heard about the Greater St. Cloud Community Pillars event, she knew she wanted to attend, especially to learn about the education pillar.

Leighton has worked in guidance counseling for more than 20 years and now serves as the associate director of admissions at St. John’s Preparatory School in Collegeville.

“I want to be involved in the community pillars,” she said, “and I want to help students get involved. I heard some great opportunities for students to reach out to the community.”

Leighton also works with students in outreach activities like assisting in local elementary schools and aftercare programs, food drives and promoting wellness.

“One of the ideas I got from this event was the idea one of the pillar videos shared for creating ‘mobile parks,’” she said. “I could see our students getting a sponsor and organizing one of the [traveling playgrounds] at an area park.”

St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis said churches and places of worship have an active role in supporting many, if not all, of the community pillars.

“The faith community is critical in facing these challenges,” Kleis said. “Any type of solution to the challenges we have [requires] working together through partnerships and collaboration. Churches have a vital part of the education, the housing issues, almost every aspect of the pillars. … The faith community is extremely important in working toward this vision.”

Good Samaritan’s lesson

Don Hickman, vice president for community and workforce development for the Initiative Foundation in Little Falls, said working to solve issues of poverty is also an opportunity for faith communities to work together.

“Other than hometown pride what motivates anybody to get involved? Typically, it’s your values, your concern for your neighbors — whether figuratively or literally — and a belief that we can leave an even greater community for our children,” he said.

“Who is it that comes upon the beaten [man]? It is the Samaritan — a person of different faith, of different culture, but that is who goes out of his way to help the beaten man,” he said.

“And this is the image Christ is holding up as a hero,” Hickman said. “If we start to only trust or work beside those who look or act like us, we missed part of that story. Aren’t we our finest selves when we try to behave like the Samaritan?

“This story for me reflects the pillars and why so many people have put themselves out there to help with these issues.”

Author: Kristi Anderson

Kristi Anderson is the editor of The Central Minnesota Catholic Magazine for the Diocese of St. Cloud.

Leave a Reply