Minnesota County Officials Cope With Poverty

WINONA, Minn. (AP) — Craig Brooks knew it was time to retire, but he couldn’t make the decision without some soul searching. Giving up his work was hard, considering the recession. More residents than ever sought help from Winona County’s Department of Human Services — the department Brooks, 65, led for 32 years.

More people with chemical dependencies and mental health issues. More investigations into child maltreatment. More people asking for food stamps.

“I’ve worked in this field in Minnesota for 44 years and seen a lot of ups and downs,” he said. “But I’ve never seen it this bad.”

Poverty is on the rise in Winona County — up at least 34 percent from 2000 to 2009, according to five-year estimates by the American Community Survey. Demand for public assistance is up too, but Brooks said there’s little his department can do as state and local officials grapple with their own budget problems.

With county unemployment at 6.2 percent in November and foreclosures at all-time highs, some resources are available for the jobless. But most predict funding from the state — or any government unit — will be cut, not increased within the next year.

Almost 8,000 county residents live below the poverty level, according to recent estimates released by the U.S. Census — a troubling statistic, Winona County Commissioner Jim Pomeroy said.

“I think it shows that the county is probably no different than any place out there,” he said.

The problem begins and ends with jobs, and when it comes to fixing the economy, county officials can’t really help, he said.

The county lost about 2,800 jobs in 2009, according to state data. More than 950 of those were in manufacturing, and with a global competition for jobs, its less likely for area companies to hire unskilled laborers, said Mike Haney, the director of the Winona County Workforce Center.

Any help the state could give would have to come through cutting programs somewhere else, said Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona.

“They will do it all by reduction in government,” he said. “We have to wait and see.”

One minute.

That’s how long it took for 36 Winona homeowners to sign up for the city’s publicly funded house rehabilitation program last June. The waiting list eventually grew to include about 120 people, but available funds will only help repair about 45 homes, said Natasha Kukowski, with the city’s community development office.

The city received about $900,000 in grants for the Core Neighborhood Rehabilitation program — more than ever before — but it’s not enough to repair every home on the list.

“We don’t have funds to stretch that far,” Kukowski said.

A variety of public and church-driven resources help relieve the burden on residents suffering from lost jobs and homes, and more people are reaching out for help.

“Two years ago (they) had no idea they might become poor, but then the recession hit and they lost their job,” said Deacon Justin Green, a co-founder of the Winona Area Poverty Roundtable. The group’s board members — from secular and religious backgrounds — have spearheaded a number of efforts to add a cushion for the poor and unemployed. Projects include the online free “store” WinonaShares.org, the emergency services program at Winona Volunteer Services, and a program to provide financial assistance to 2007 flood victims.

Brooks’ office lost six or seven staff members last year, but more people are using programs like food assistance, he said.

The county’s total human services cost in 2009 was about $77.2 million, according to state data.

Revenue the department receives from the state dipped from $2.8 million in 2008 to about $2 million for 2009 and 2010, but state guidelines that control services haven’t changed.

“All of these programs and everything we do are dictated by state law,” Brooks said.

In other words, demand is growing, funding is dwindling and state requirements still force the county to provide services, leaving Brooks’ department in a difficult position.

Still, with the possibility of more cuts on the horizon, his office will eventually streamline its administrative staff and merge with Community Health and Veteran Services departments.

Brooks is staying on to facilitate the merger. By June, he should be retired.

As for human services, the future is murky.

“It will be easier when we all move in together,” he said. “But it’s kind of hard picturing how things will be.”

Winona Daily News

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

  • Kieron

    Plenty of money for politicians’ salaries, though, and plenty of money for wars, military expenditures and foreign aid, including the money we send daily to certain Middle Eastern countries whose name begins with the letter I.

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  • l. lulu

    why aren’t more of us making those connections…. especially our media?!

    • The Crux of the Biscuit

      The media is owned by the wealthy. Exactly whos bidding do you suppose they are doing? The media is largely pro-neo-con, by a wide margin. Even the local stations lean right. Money talks, it will tell you a story…..

  • The Crux of the Biscuit

    As long as the Pohlads taxes have been cut, everything is fine in the world. Look how many jobs they created in the last 8 years, millions of them I guess….

  • The Crux of the Biscuit

    I just hope all of the people that voted Republican and now find themselves out of work are happy with themselves. It should get even worse as the Republicans take over much of DC and attempt to cut unemployment comp. for everyone. The people that are voting conservative and have to work for a living and damned fools….

  • The Crux of the Biscuit

    ARE, ARE damned fools…..

  • Exposure

    This is what I think IMHO. People are more chemical dependent because the doctors love to write out not only one but usually many prescriptions to a person and most chemicals are not compatible with each other. Of course they will develop mental health issues and problems just from that alone. People will either sell them, take them or throw them away, I hear. Sounds like the vulnerable children are suffering for it too cause mom/dad have gone insane. Our tax money is not being used responsibly for our people in United States instead it is supporting greedy white collar criminal activities world wide.

  • Joe

    MN need to cut deeper into medicaid, medicare, welfare, food stamps, university, colleges, and many other pet projects. For immediate State needs to axing off at least 30% government employee.

    Finally, kill the Union

    • Obvious

      Right on! Craig, if you feel you need to help, become a volunteer, and let some new, cheaper procedures take place.

  • diana

    …and of course get rid of that pesky health care stuff and turn it over to the ‘free market’ yup that’s going to help. One thing that would help counties right now is for the state to do a bonuse for home sales BUT ONLY those homes owned by Senior Citizens who are on medical waivers and in nursing home. The State and County bear the burdan for paying for that care while hoses sit empty and are unable to compete with the bank foreclosures and short sales.

  • norge

    Crux is a fool! So simple minded it is proof of the liberal-union controlled educations failure of the public sector. Time andagain history has proven lower taxation=more jobs, but the commies hate the truth. Taxing the rich is class-warefar based on lies, 90% of the taxes are currently paid by 15% of the population already, but commies hate facts. Throw out Obama and Dayton and Sotomyer and other liberal morons to send this country back to the path of rightousness and wealth.

  • mark from mntaxwaste.com

    CRUZ Please change your screen name to scare crow, because I wonder what you would do if you had a brain

  • R III

    We should call this “Kitrina Syndrom”. Oh where is the government to help us bla, bla, bla. Like a bunch of sheep that have not been fed. Get off your fat bottoms and do something for yourselves or others!

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