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Struggling to thrive: Wadena County remains among the poorest in the state

Wadena County has one of the state's highest poverty rates yet it is hiome to nearly 14,000 people. Brian Hansel/Pioneer Journal1 / 2
Located in the northern half of Minnesota, Wadena County is part of a block of counties that rate as some of the poorest economically in the state. U.S. Census Bureau Graphic 2 / 2

Folks around here are all too aware of the fact that Wadena County is among the poorest in the state, but why is that?

The county had the lowest median household income in Minnesota when the last census was taken in 2010 ($34,686), the second-lowest per capita income ($19,344) and the fourth-lowest median family income ($47,898). And according to area experts, those rankings haven't changed much.

"Generally, we rank either one or two as the poorest county in Minnesota," said Wadena Human Services Director Tanya Leskey, who insists that explaining why the poverty rate is so high in Wadena County is not an easy one. One aspect of the problem is easily identifiable, though — wages. Low wages are a big problem in all of Region 5, which includes Wadena, Cass, Crow Wing, todd and Morrison Counties.

"Wages are low in Region 5, but they appear to be even lower in Wadena County," said Chet Bodin, a regional analyst with the Northwest Minnesota Department of Employment and Statistics. One statistic that surprises Bodin and alarms some Wadena residents is the percentage of county residents between 18 and 34 living in poverty—21 percent.

"Some need to work and want to work, but even when they do, they probably have a hard time," Bodin said.

Daycare may be a very large issue for this group. The expense of daycare is one thing, the scarcity of it is another and making it work around a work schedule is a third.

But if a job is, indeed, what one is looking for, they're here in Wadena County.

"Certainly people who are interested in working can find a job," Bodin said. The unemployment rate in Wadena County, not adjusted seasonally, in December, 2017 was 6.3 percent.

But not everyone is looking. In fact, only just over half of Wadena County's population is working. In a time when employers in other parts of the state are crying for more help, the percentage of Wadena's total labor force of 6,184 that is actually working is only 57.2 percent. The state average for job participation is 70 percent.

"To be part of the labor force you have to have two qualifications: the first is that you want to be working and the second is that you don't have any barriers to working," Bodin said. "You don't to have to have a job to be considered part of the labor force because there is a percentage of people in the labor force that are looking for work and can't find it. That is commonly known as the unemployment rate."

Those barriers to employment can be many and varied - problems with drugs, criminal records, illness that keeps a person from working, illness of a family member that prevents a person from earning a paycheck and the lack of child care opportunities are among these factors.

In addition to having a single wage earner in many families, Bodin believes Wadena County is handicapped by the median age of the county.

Wadena is one of many outstate counties in Minnesota with an older population. The statewide average is 37. Wadena's average age is 43.

"The older people get, the less they participate in the labor force," Bodin said.

Poverty is also harder to detect in the older set. The money senior citizens live off is harder to track for analysts.

"More of them are relying on social security or savings," Bodin said. "They can't be tracked as far as median income."

But even if jobs are fairly easy to find in Wadena County, the other question is, how helpful are they when trying to make a decent living?

Lynn Nesland, a Housing Case Manager for Mahube-Otwa, does run into many people holding good-paying jobs in Wadena County, but her job is to help those having trouble making ends meet. She finds herself assisting people who hold service jobs and shift work at places like fast food restaurants and gas stations. While these can certainly be good supplementary jobs, Nesland says they do not pay enough for people to keep up with the cost of living, particularly when affordable housing is so tough to find.

She says this can cause the situation where people have to move from place to place, living with friends or family for a time but never in an arrangement with any great security or permanency. It's a situation she says she runs across in Wadena County. They might be able to help their hosts with expenses but they do not have the income to be independent.

So why are there 27 counties in the state with less population than Wadena County? Resting on the eastern flank of giant Otter Tail County, little Wadena County still boasted an estimated population of 13,761 in 2016. If the county's poverty level is so high compared to Minnesota's other 87 counties, why do so many people live here?

Wadena-Deer Creek Food Service and Community Education Director Sandie Rentz's theory about Wadena County's attraction, despite the lack of economic opportunity, is rooted in a lifetime of being a county resident.

"They probably have a good network of family and friends," Rentz said. "That sense of belonging is very important to some people. This is home and this is really where they want to be."

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