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State of rural Minnesota: poorer and more diverse

Rep. Debra Kiel of Crookston asks a question Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015, about the state of rural Minnesota during a presentation to a state House committee on that topic. FORUM NEWS SERVICE/Don Davis

 Rural Minnesota has some striking differences with Minneapolis and St. Paul, but also some surprising similarities.

For instance, north-central Minnesota's population is poorer than most of the state, with lower income and more school students on government-subsidized free lunch than much of the state. A few other deep rural areas joined the north-central area on those marks.

The state's two biggest cities also had a high free-lunch rate, but median household income was far better than north-central Minnesota in demographics presented to a state House committee Thursday by Executive Director Brad Finstad of the Center for Rural Policy and Development.

Called The State of Rural Minnesota, Finstad's presentation was a primer for the House Greater Minnesota Economic and Workforce Development Policy Committee, which in the next few months is to work on improving conditions outside the Twin Cities.

In an interview, Finstad said attention being paid this year to greater Minnesota is good news.

"Without a doubt, people are paying more attention to rural issues," he said.

He warned, however, that lawmakers need to look beyond next year's election because solving rural Minnesota problems will take years.

The former state representative used a series of maps to show committee members the changes affecting rural Minnesota.

Finstad said that data shows north-central Minnesota is a financial sore spot. While he said "there are a thousand different factors" causing the issue, he noted that area is home to poor American Indian reservations.

In many ways, greater Minnesota is a contrast. The areas doing best generally are in a corridor from St. Cloud, through the Twin Cities to Rochester. That is where much of the population growth has occurred, but counties north of the Twin Cities and St. Cloud also are growing.

Places that he called "deep rural" generally are losing population, mostly young people. As residents there age, Finstad said, there will be fewer workers available and less money to pay property taxes. Health-care institutions will be in greater demand.

Rep. Mike Sundin, D-Esko, warned committee members that some data about some counties across rural Minnesota may be hard to analyze because so few people live there that a minor change could affect statistics. "You could have a sled dog accident and that skews how many you have in a county."

While many people look at the state as metropolitan and rural, Finstad said that is not the case: "It is well beyond two Minnesotas in some areas."

Rural and deep rural areas have different needs, which often are different than those in the urban and suburban areas.

Among the differences Finstad showed was that the average age in many rural counties is at least 46, compared to the national average age of nearly 38. The youngest counties generally are in the suburbs, but some rural counties also show median ages younger than 36.

While many rural counties are losing population, colleges are attracting young people to some areas, as are minorities.

Nine counties' populations grew between 1990 and 2012 due to minority residents. While the state's two largest counties -- Hennepin and Ramsey -- led the way in minority population growth, other counties scattered around the state also gained minorities: Clearwater, Fillmore, Lyon, Mower, Mahnomen, Nobles and St. Louis, Finstad's figures show.

White Minnesotans remain the strong majority, but the percentage of people of color throughout the state has gone from 6 percent to 15 percent since 1990. Many western and southern counties attracted new Latino, Laotian, Somali, Sudanese, Hmong and other people of color.

Income is one of the major differences between the suburbs and rural Minnesota. The biggest median 2012 household income was in suburban Scott County at $86,324 while it was lowest in Wadena County, $37,577.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.