Minnesota's child population is shrinking, but that does not signal a need to shrink spending and efforts to improve child care, health and welfare, leaders of the Children's Defense Fund-Minnesota argued this week.

If anything, the need is growing, because the state needs as many children as possible to reach their full potential, said Kara Arzamendia, the organization's research director.

"We can't afford to lose even one child," she said. "We're going to need every little person to take the place of all these aging Baby Boomers who are going to retire and take all of their knowledge and skills and abilities with them."

If you accept that argument -- and there are plenty who would argue for a diversion of state resources to aging services instead -- then the organization's new Kids Count 2012 data book suggests Minnesota has urgent problems.

Child poverty grew from 9 percent in 2000 to 15 percent in 2010. Nearly half the kids in poverty lived outside the metro area, busting the myth that poverty is an urban problem. Poverty among children 5 and younger was even higher.

"We know the stress of poverty can be detrimental to their brain development, to their social and emotional development," Arzamendia said. "That can really ... create a foundation that we don't want for these children. It puts them on the wrong path."

This year's data book focused on regional variations.

• North-central Minnesota had a 26 percent child poverty rate in 2010 and a high child crime rate. Family housing is more affordable, though.

• The Dakota border regions have less access to healthy foods, putting children at risk of malnutrition, and fewer kids are covered by health insurance.

• The northeast has high rates of child abuse and infants born at low birth weights (which can result from poor prenatal care and maternal smoking).

Arzamendia said the data should give counties further proof of their individual needs, and motivation to improve them.

jolson@startribune.com • 612-673-7744