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Report links poverty and poor health

The Ely family was living on the sofas in various relatives' homes for a period of several months.

It only made it harder for them to care for their young son, who has disabilities.

"They were ... feeling overwhelmed with the prospects of trying to care for him ... (and) he just wasn't doing as well," said Heidi Favet, leader of the Ely Area Community Care Team.

The family's difficulties underscore the conclusion that emerges from an annual county-by-county ranking of population health: Poverty increases the chances that people will experience poor health.

"We can't be a healthy, thriving nation if we continue to leave entire communities and populations behind," said Dr. Richard Besser, president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, in a news release accompanying the annual County Health Rankings and Roadmaps.

The report, collecting a large number of health and socioeconomic statistics for every county in the nation, is produced by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation along with the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

The data show the correlation. In Minnesota, for example, a measure of what the report calls "health outcomes" shows Carver County as the healthiest in the state, and Mahnomen County as the least healthy. Those two counties have child poverty rates of 4 percent and 30 percent, respectively.

St. Louis County, which ranks 74th for health outcomes among the state's 87 counties, has a child poverty rate of 17 percent — below the national average of 20 percent but higher than the state average of 13 percent.

All Northeastern Minnesota counties are in the bottom 20 percent for health outcomes, ranging from 71st for Lake County to 82nd for Cook County.

It's a similar story in Wisconsin, where Ozaukee County, ranked the healthiest, has a child poverty rate of 5 percent. The least-healthy county, Menominee, has a child poverty rate of 41 percent.

Douglas County matches St. Louis County's 17 percent child poverty rate and ranks 52nd among Wisconsin's 72 counties. In Northwestern Wisconsin, Bayfield County has the highest ranking at 42nd and Sawyer County the lowest at 70th.

"If children are in poverty, we're not setting ourselves up well for healthy communities down the road," said Amy Westbrook, public health director for the St. Louis County Health Department.

Pat Conway, a researcher for the Essentia Institute of Rural Health, agreed.

"Sadly, across the board, kids who were more likely to have ... a disability, were more likely to have a mental health problem, more likely to get kicked out of school — kids who are low-income are more likely to be in those categories," Conway said.

It takes partnerships to address child poverty issues, Westbrook said. She cited the Ely Area Community Care Team, which Favet helped to form in 2011, as one such partnership that is making a difference.

The team serves all age groups in the region that includes Ely, Tower, Babbitt and Embarrass, Favet said. "We've tried to take on that challenge of addressing the needs of the entire population, because we are so remote up here," she said.

The team members work across agency lines to offer support services for people who fall through the cracks, Favet said. A care facilitator is appointed as a bridge between an individual or family and all of their care providers.

In the case of the homeless family whose young son had disabilities, the care team was able to help them get into public housing, she said. They helped get the boy to his health appointments and worked with the schools so his needs would be better met there. They gave the parents people to call when problems arose.

After four months, "they're all doing better," Favet said. "And that's why we really focus on ... the whole family as a unit."

Although Northland counties fall toward the lower end of the state rankings, that should be taken in context, Westbrook said. "We have to remember that Minnesota is a healthy state in general, so when we're looking at those data, remember that, too."

To learn more

Look at this year's County Health Rankings and Roadmap report at