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Tackling Duluth's woes: From shocking to promising

In September 2007, Duluthians were forced to face sobering numbers: The city's poverty rate (15.5 percent) and dropout rate (6.38 percent) were both double the state average. Nearly half the people using a food shelf or soup kitchen were children...

In September 2007, Duluthians were forced to face sobering numbers: The city's poverty rate (15.5 percent) and dropout rate

(6.38 percent) were both double the state average. Nearly half the people using a food shelf or soup kitchen were children. And a hard-to-fathom 44 percent of high school seniors in Duluth drank alcohol before or during school.

If those weren't sufficiently shocking, a first-of-its-kind comprehensive assessment of health and human services needs also reported that one-third of everyone living in Duluth -- nearly 30,000 of us -- was "poor" or "working poor" because wages weren't sufficiently robust to meet basic needs.

A year later, the numbers haven't changed much -- but the community's response to them and attitude about them certainly have. The United Way of Greater Duluth's follow-up Community Impact Report, to be presented at a luncheon today, is packed with evidence that Duluthians not only were shocked by the initial report's findings but also were shocked into action.

More than 300 organizations, institutions, government bodies, everyday Duluthians and others -- everyone from AFSCME to the YWCA -- lined up and formed partnerships to tackle homelessness, illiteracy, a lack of access to health care, poverty and other identified shortcomings.

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"Our community has issues, but there are a lot of things happening" now to address them, United Way President Paula Reed told the News Tribune editorial page yesterday. "There is just a ton going on."

Enough to fill the 44-page follow-up report. Its many promising stories of budding success include Imagination Library, launched this week and detailed in a story in today's News Tribune. Its goal was to fight illiteracy by putting free books into the hands of 2,300 Duluth-area kids. In two weeks, 1,200 children signed up.

"We're seeing progress like that in every area," said Therese Scherrer of the United Way, which is serving as collaborator, moderator and organizer in tackling problems identified by last year's report.

"When you have little successes along the way it builds momentum," Reed added. "Sometimes it's easy to feel like things aren't moving fast enough, [but] I think progress takes time. ... Have we made some baby steps? Absolutely."

So much more needs to be done. It's far too early even to suggest that Duluth has turned a corner on any of the identified problems. The whole community must ensure that momentum isn't lost and that progress continues -- enough to fill another update report next year.

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