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Stark County poverty numbers skewed by oil boom

Although the percentage of children living in poverty in Stark County might seem low compared to the national average, those numbers might not be telling the entire story.

Only 11 percent of children in Stark County are classified as living in poverty, according to recently released University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute numbers, although one Community Action administrator in Dickinson said that number -- significantly lower than the national average -- is misleading.

"We are required to follow the federal poverty guidelines at 100 percent of the poverty level," said Head Start Program director Sharon Hansen. "What we're finding is there are fewer children and families eligible for our services because of the pressure on wages in this area."

Because of the high cost of living in western North Dakota and soaring prices in the rental housing market in recent years, Hansen said social workers are finding that many families who came to the area because of employment opportunities are leaving because they can't afford to live here.

"A lot of people have left because they say they simply can't survive here," Hansen said. "Even if you're working at McDonald's, because they've raised their wages, you're not going to qualify for our programs. It's a new category of people that we've begun to track. We all know the unemployment numbers here are very low, but, many times, that doesn't tell the story of how families are actually doing. People tell us that their rent has doubled or tripled and just simply leave the area."

According to federal guidelines -- which are universal for most states -- a single parent with one child cannot make more than $15,000 (about $7.45 per hour) annually to qualify for Head Start, Hansen said. Most fast food restaurants in Dickinson currently start new employees at $10 per hour or more -- many times significantly more.

The UWPHI study, which was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, ranks nearly every county in the nation based on a health "snapshot" compiled from U.S. Census, state and other sources of statistics.

Among counties in North Dakota, Stark County came in No. 19 in overall health. Bowman County came in at No. 8 while Hettinger County (24) and Dunn County came in behind Stark.

Adams County was ranked No. 40 while Golden Valley, Slope and Billings counties were not ranked.

The report showed Stark County has some work to do in the category of "health behaviors" as 29 percent of the population is considered obese and one out of every five (20 percent) of residents have an "excessive drinking" habit, one of the highest rates in the nation. It isn't all bad news for Stark County, though: the area proved to have positive scores in the mortality category.

"For the most part, since 2003, the premature death rate has been below the national average and North Dakota is generally healthier than the rest of the U.S.," said UWPHI researcher Kate Konkle. "As with most counties, Stark County has some areas where it scored very well and some that it could improve on. With nearly one third of the adult population being classified as obese, that's an area that, as with the nation in general, could see some improvement. In an area like teen birth rate, the county has some very positive numbers."

The report showed that there were 18 births to teen mothers between the ages of 15 and 19 per every 1,000 females in that age range. The state average for North Dakota in that category is 28, which is lower than the national average. Stark County also had an 87 percent high school graduation rate and an unemployment rate of just two percent.

"One thing that stands out to me in the data for Stark County is the fact that there is only one dentist for every 3,157 people," Konkle said. "That number is well above the national benchmark (one dentist per every 1,500 residents) and we know that oral health is connected to a lot of other areas of physical health. Access to oral health care is really important to building a healthy community, so that's an area that could see improvement."

As Hansen pointed out, however, many numbers can be misleading when it comes to aggregated data and Oil Patch-affected areas of western North Dakota. The 2013 report -- which is the 4th annual -- examined 25 different factors that influence health. Nationwide, the data showed that rates of premature death are at the lowest level in close to two decades, though people in the unhealthiest U.S. counties are dying too early at more than twice the rates of those in the healthiest counties.

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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