Out of the many discussions about rebuilding north Minneapolis after the devastating tornado last spring, one startling statistic emerged -- 68 percent of North Side residents make so little money that they receive assistance from Hennepin County to get by.

Their ranks include LaToya Surratt, who gradually won enough hours from her employer to wean herself off of food stamps and medical insurance for herself and her 4-year-old daughter, but still depends on the county to pay for the girl's day care.

And Shanette Marable, who left her job as a cashier at Burger King to care for her infant, only to struggle to find a job when she was ready to go back to work.

The high level of dependency has prompted Hennepin County to approve a project to examine the reasons behind it to try to lower the rate by 25 percent over five years.

"When you start seeing a rate around two-thirds, you begin to understand that poverty has become the dominant culture," said George Garnett, director of strategic development at Summit Academy OIC, whose leaders are involved in carrying out the project.

In all, $2.6 billion for child care, medical insurance, cash assistance, and other safety net programs flowed to low-income Hennepin County residents in 2010, the latest year for which the county supplied numbers. It was a 27 percent increase since 2006. Most of that money came from the federal and state governments, though the county paid $214 million.

Nationally, 17 percent of Americans receive food stamps, welfare, housing subsidies, Medicaid, or Supplemental Security income, according to published estimates from census data analyzed by the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That figure does not include subsidized child care.

North Minneapolis residents still comprise only 18 percent of the county's social services clients.

"We have to challenge the proposition that charity and welfare are the way to prosperity -- the results are speaking for themselves," said Louis King, CEO of Summit Academy OIC, who is also leading the project.

Sanctuary Community Development Corp., the nonprofit commissioned to carry out the $150,000 project, will not come up with recommendations until the fall. But its preliminary study of 218 low-income north Minneapolis recipients of county assistance offers more insight into the challenges they confront to overcoming dependency. Outreach workers discovered in the survey that about 47 percent had a high school diploma or GED. More than a quarter had some college or technical school. Eighty-one percent said they wanted to go to school to learn a trade or receive education needed for work.

Yet only 36 percent had a driver's license and 35 percent said getting to and from work could keep them from finding and keeping a job.

The majority belonged to a church, have worked full time before and have plenty of food at home. Still, about half said they felt so sad or depressed they didn't know what to do next.

Garnett said Sanctuary CDC will hold focus groups with some of the people surveyed, speak with regional employers about their labor needs, and find ways to direct recipients of county aid into longer-term professions.

Surratt, 37, received her GED but entered adulthood without a real career track. She shuttled between foster homes and became pregnant at 15. Everyone around her dealt drugs and stole. Surratt struggled to get by on part-time jobs.

"I wasn't making enough money, so I felt myself slipping away back to a life of crime," she recalled.

Five years ago, at the urging of an aunt, she left behind her troubled life in South Bend, Ind., to move to the Twin Cities.

Surratt first received cash assistance through the Minnesota Family Investment Program, or MFIP, a welfare program for low-income families with children that helps participants get work. Surratt found work as a personal care assistant, but had to beg for more hours to increase her paycheck. Finally, she worked her way up to an office job full time, eventually earning enough to lose her eligibility for welfare, food stamps and free medical care for her and her 4-year-old daughter, Imonie.

Now, the only county aid she receives is subsidized day care.

"I'm still struggling to survive," said Surratt, who lives at Morgan and Plymouth Avenues N.

Without the food stamps and health insurance, she goes to food banks and community health clinics. She would rather have it that way than living off the system, and looks forward to when she will one day make enough money to forgo even child care through the county.

"It makes you feel good that you don't ... have to wait until the first of the month to receive everything. You don't have to worry about them saying, 'Oh well, we didn't get that paper,' and you're telling them, 'Here's my confirmation right there,' ... It makes you as a person feel better, more responsible."

Two miles away, Marable, 23, is eking out a living with her two children on about $400 a month from the county, food stamps and other county benefits. She pays less than $100 a month for her apartment. It is mostly subsidized through nonprofit Project for Pride in Living.

Marable worked at Burger King as a cashier until 2009, but left after feeling uncomfortable with her 1-year-old daughter's baby sitter. By the time she started looking for a job again last year, she could only find seasonal jobs.

Marable, who did not graduate from high school, wants to earn her GED and return to school to become a dental assistant or counselor for troubled children. In the meantime, she wants to work a retail job to support her family -- if she could only find one. She said she wants to get off county assistance "as fast as I can."

"They control your everything ... the only thing I can do about it is get a job, because I don't like anybody controlling my money," Marable said.

Both women also said they know of many people around them who are scamming the system, and that Minnesota makes it too easy for lazy people to collect benefits.

The tornado forced other residents into greater dependency.

Kenetha Parker hurt her foot after falling during the storm. Now Parker cannot stand up for long periods, so she can no longer work the type of fast food job she used to have until she has surgery. She receives cash through Hennepin County, though before she only received medical assistance and food stamps.

Like many on the North Side, she finds the 68 percent dependency level "very sad."

"I would love," Parker said, "to get off the assistance."

Maya Rao • 612-673-4210