Exploring Duluth’s elephant in the room: Poverty

The city of Duluth offers its share of amenities, with a unique mixture of city life and wooded areas, wildlife, lake scenery and trails. But many of the city’s residents also feel the day-to-day despair brought on by living life in poverty.

According to the city’s Housing Indicator Report, Duluth’s 2014 population was 80,521, with 18,306, or 22.7 percent, living in poverty – twice as large as the state average of 11.5 percent. Even more troubling, one out of every four children under the age of 18 lives in poverty.

The young and working-age adults are hit particularly hard. About 59 percent of the city’s labor force earns less than a poverty level of income, while 70.6 percent of those ages 18 to 24 live in poverty. Poverty also disproportionately affects persons of color, with more than 60 percent of African Americans and Native Americans living in poverty.

Poverty rates are especially high for female-led single parent households. Statistically, more than two-thirds of these households are below the poverty line, 70 percent of those households with only children younger than five are living below poverty level, while 100 percent of households with five or more related children younger than 18 living in poverty.

What is the cause? Why is it so hard to escape? Is enough being done to fight it? If so, why is success so elusive?

“There’s a lot of talk about these issues, but not enough action. More needs to be done,” said Angie Miller, executive director of Community Action Duluth. “We want to take luck out of the equation. There needs to be more built-in support.”

Some may question why it matters. But, the impact of poverty extends far beyond those who are directly affected:

• Companies need customers who can afford their products. Currently, one-fifth of their potential buyers may find discretionary consumption out of reach.

• Many impoverished persons lack the skills to accept available job positions.

• Those in poverty pay few taxes, shifting the burden to others.

• Those same persons require more government services, increasing tax revenue needs.

• Impoverished individuals are more likely to commit a crime, creating an even larger divide within the community between social classes.

• Impoverished individuals often can’t obtain mortgages, reducing home sales and home re-investment.

High rent, low supply

The median household income for a Duluth homeowner is $64,563, with median monthly ownership costs of $952. In comparison, the median household income for a renter is $21,393 with an average monthly rent of $851. That’s just a $101 housing cost difference, but an income gap of $43,170.

The Housing Indicator Report also notes that average rent increased from $757 to $851 a month from 2014 to 2015. And while homeowners’ incomes have increased, renters’ incomes have remained largely stagnant.

“No average cost market-rate housing, not even a studio apartment, is affordable to one full-time minimum wage worker in Duluth,” the report concludes.

With long waiting lists for public assistance housing, local organizations attempt to fill the gap.

Community Action Duluth offers a Family Assets for Independence in Minnesota Individual Development Account (FAIM IDA), a matched savings account designed to help participants save money to acquire one of three assets: a home, a higher education or a small business.

There are six organizations in Duluth that provide 130 beds in emergency shelters and eight that offer almost 150 beds and services in transitional housing units, as well as just over 380 beds in permanent supportive housing units, according to the city of Duluth’s Community Planning Division.

But uncertainty and constant transition impede the ability of those in poverty to better their situation. There are other factors that also contribute to the cycle of poverty – making escape difficult, if not impossible. Race, single parent status, addiction, health issues and criminal records also play a role.


“Where groups end up has everything to do with where they start, and we don’t all start in the same place. There is a dramatic racial wealth gap in this nation (and this state).” 

—Dr. Rose Brewer, Professor of African American and African Studies, University of Minnesota

According to the American Community Survey (ACS) and the U.S. Census Bureau, Duluth’s poverty rates by race are as follows: 

  • White - 19.1 percent
  • Black or African American – 60.8 percent
  • American Indian and Alaska Native – 65.4 percent
  • Asian – 32.8 percent
  • Latino/Hispanic – 26.2 percent
  • Two or more races - 46 percent

Thus, in Duluth, a person is two times or more likely to be living in poverty if they are not white, raising the specter of systemic racism. With education attainment and skills being key to escaping poverty, some are taking action.

Miller says the Duluth School District is working on the achievement gap among K-12 minorities.

“It would help if we had a much greater number of teachers of color,” she said, a point also raised by Holly Sampson of the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation.

Miller pointed to a study conducted by the Knight Foundation entitled “Knight Soul of the Community” (SOTC). SOTC is a three-year investigation to determine the factors that attach residents to their communities and the role of community attachment in an area’s economic growth and well being.

The study explored the Duluth-Superior Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes St. Louis, Carlton and Douglas counties, and found the region did not fare well when it comes to “welcomeness” toward incoming minorities and young talent. The study asserted that “welcomeness” was a culture that should be fostered.

Community Action Duluth has developed an engagement model called Circles of Support, which works to increase community and build intentional relationships across race and class lines. The approach used by Circles of Support “brings people together to dispel stereotypes and strengthen social connections across socioeconomic and cultural divides to help move families out of poverty.”

The model explores public policy through its “Getting Ahead” program, which challenges participants to investigate their own lives, the personal and systemic causes of poverty and the community around them.

The model also includes Community Action’s Big View Community Forums, an environment that puts people who experience poverty in the same room with people who have the power to address the concerns of poverty – working together to find solutions.

Finally, Community Action’s Race Awareness Workshops for business owners include four sessions that focus on several useful subjects such as learning how cultural norms, stereotypes and bias affect the workplace, identifying the systemic building blocks of stereotypes and subtle discriminations, and increasing understanding of race and advantage.

“Racial issues are a huge factor in business. We need to invest now for our future. Business leaders should pay close attention to this disparity,” Miller said.


In addition to the high risk of death resulting from overdose, addiction can lead to a variety of outcomes, which contribute to the cycle of poverty. Arrest and child abuse and/or neglect issues create stress as well as inhibiting one’s ability to find gainful employment.

There were 9.4 percent of students who reported they lived with someone who drinks too much alcohol in 2013’s Minnesota Student Survey.

The Superior Babies program, provided through St. Louis County, provides supportive relationships to any pregnant woman with a history of substance use. Clients pair with a licensed chemical dependency counselor and public health nurse. They help her find useful life-skills and meet parenting goals.

“They encouraged me to go back to school, get a job and helped me sign up for assistance. If it weren’t for them, I don’t know where I’d be right now,” local mother Patricia Bautista. “A lot of people don’t know about the program. Drug addicted mothers should at least know that Superior Babies is a positive outlet in a time of need.”


The inability to work or earn adequate income due to health issues, combined with the high cost of medical care, make financial difficulty practically inevitable, according to the Legislative Report published by the Commission to End Poverty in Minnesota by 2020.

The report adds, “People with no means of paying for their medical expenses outside of Medicaid or MinnCare need access to those programs. Unfortunately, under current rules, if their job pays them a living wage, they are not eligible for these programs.

“This kind of issue, called a ‘benefit cliff,’ creates a strong disincentive to work — an unintended consequence of programs meant to help, not hurt, Minnesotans,” the report found.

“Mental health is a big issue not only for me, but I think for a large part of those who live in poverty,” said Gorr. “I myself suffer from anxiety, major depressive disorder PTSD and some other issues. Having these issues makes it very hard some days to even get out of bed, let alone leave my house. Work some days was a nightmare. By the time I got home, my body was too exhausted to do other things such as clean, cook and parent, but being single I have no choice but to keep on."

Stuart also agreed that a large portion of the city's impoverished people suffer from mental health issues.

Criminal backgrounds

People having arrest records “are paying for the future with their past,” Miller said when speaking about employment barriers.

Local homeless youth Marisol Sanchez has friends who don’t qualify for housing assistance, let alone a job, because of their criminal record. The housing matter is made worse because of low supply.

“Sometimes you pay the $40 for a background check and don’t pass it then you’ve spent all you had for nothing,” she said.

“They’re underemployed, and still in the wrong places at the wrong time,” Miller said. “There’s a huge amount of young people with a criminal past who don’t get a second chance.”

Miller referenced a website called WeAreAllCriminals.org, which provides some pertinent stories.

“One in four people in the United States have a criminal record. But what about the other 75 percent? This project is about the ones that got away, and how very different their lives may have been had they been caught,” it says.

“Duluth needs more of the philosophy that everyone makes mistakes,” Miller said.


During the third quarter of 2016, the Northland Foundation approved 52 grants, awarding a total of $421,850 to serve the people and communities of the seven-county region.

A significant grant of $105,000 during the quarter was awarded to Churches United in Ministry (CHUM) to support early childhood programming at the Steve O’Neil Apartments in Duluth, which provides 44 units of permanent supportive housing to families with children that have experienced persistent homelessness, as well as six units of emergency housing.

The term supportive housing means that more than simply shelter, families have access to a range of supportive services to stabilize their lives. This programming is a key component of “wrap-around” services at the Steve O’Neil Apartments to help parents and their children who have experienced instability and trauma to thrive and, ultimately, to break the cycle of family homelessness.

“All of the children living at the Steve O’Neil Apartments are in poverty; 82 percent come from single-parent households, and some are the third generation in their family to experience homelessness,” stated Lee Stuart, executive director of CHUM, which manages the services provision. “Many have witnessed domestic violence, addiction, and mental health issues within their families.”

“These are factors well known to negatively impact educational outcomes, and physical, psychological and emotional health. Safe, stable housing is just the first step on the path to a brighter future,” concluded Stuart.

Sanchez said her friends struggle to find work not only because of their race or gender, but also because they lack access to hygiene facilities and clean clothing.

Duluth’s homeless community held a rally in early December on the steps of the City Hall asking the city council to hold up a previously approved resolution calling for a Homeless Bill of Rights.

Homeless people believe that they have been treated unfairly or discriminated against by both private businesses and city staff because of their housing status, according to surveys conducted at the annual Community Connect events in Duluth.

“Duluth can do better,” organizer Shareeka Smith said in a news release. “It was scary enough to be forced to sleep in our car with our girls because we couldn’t find housing we could afford. When you add to that knocks on your car door by police telling you to move on or else, it’s terrifying. … We are just asking for the city to put its best practices into policy. By passing the Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights we are saying that we are a community that looks out for one another.”


One quarter of all children under age 18 in Duluth are living in poverty.

The Community Foundation started the Opportunity Gap initiative in the fall of 2015. In conjunction with the launch, it received a $1.5 million grant from the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation to address the Opportunity Gap locally and find responses through work to improve parenting, education and community connections for impoverished families and children.

According to the 2013 Minnesota Student Survey (MSS), 26.6 percent of students in grades 8, 9 and 11 in St. Louis County reported high distress levels for internalizing disorders. 

The St. Louis County average age at which students reported first trying drugs other than marijuana was 14 during the years 2007-2010.

“Before, I felt like school was a setback, like it was in the way of what I thought mattered (which was using drugs) but somewhere along the way I found God and wanted to make a change,” said 17-year-old Duluthian Shylah Johnson.

She overcame many struggles growing up, adding that some people’s influences and lack of encouragement made it hard to focus on school and her goals.

“But I just brush it off because I know I’m gonna go somewhere regardless of my past. I know God’s got big plans for me.”

“I wanted to make a change, so I went to treatment and I’m now slowly achieving my dreams. School is great. I have so many blessings, and now that I’m not using, it’s much easier to focus.”

MSS data reveals just 40.2 percent of St. Louis County students report they feel that their community cares about them quite a bit or very much. Some professionals believe Northeastern Minnesota communities can start tackling poverty by reaching children first. That approach has been adopted by local figures. Many have already started to pick up on it and adopt it as a starting point.