AUSTIN (AP) -- Sara Hull and Rosa Narvaez are both mothers, both in their early 30s, and both moved here in the past few years. But they live worlds apart in this small, southeast Minnesota town.
Hull, 30 and white, built a large new house when she moved to Austin after her husband, an executive, was transferred from St. Louis to the headquarters of Hormel Foods in 1999. "We built because nothing on the market was acceptable," she said.
Narvaez, 31, Hispanic and a secretary for a nonprofit group, lived with her brother for nine months before she found a one-bedroom apartment for $400 a month. "It was hard to find a place that I could afford," she said.
Their stories go a long way toward explaining why Mower County has one of the largest disparities between rich and poor in the state.
An analysis of census figures released Tuesday shows that the income disparity in Mower County also grew by 13 percent, more than any other county in the state from 1990 to 2000. Statewide, the increase was 1.3 percent.
The spreading gap in Mower County doesn't surprise George Brophy, president and chief executive officer for the Development Corporation of Austin, which recruits businesses to the area.
The Mower County economy is dominated by Hormel Foods, with 2,500 jobs in the county and a payroll of $80 million. It's the only Fortune 500 company in Minnesota with its headquarters outside the Twin Cities.
Part of Hormel's growth in the 1990s, Brophy said, came through acquisitions. "When they buy these companies, they will move some senior staff to Austin," he said.
Those executives are well paid and tend to skew upward the income figures of a small county of 38,603 people. Meanwhile, the local meatpacking plant has been replacing retiring white workers with younger, lower-paid Latinos, he said.
The result has been the large income spread detected by the 2000 Census. Brophy said his nonprofit group is trying to fill the gap by attracting companies that pay middle-class wages.
"We don't always hit the sort of wage targets we would like, but you have to take what you get," he said.
Additional census data makes his point. The Census found that the Hispanic population in the county boomed from 243 in 1990 to 1,648 in 2000, a trend also seen in other Minnesota meatpacking towns.
The influx of low-paid Latinos caused high income disparities in other Minnesota counties with meatpacking plants, but it's not the only cause.
Barbara Ronningen, an analyst with the state demographer's office, said counties with many retirees living off their savings would appear in the index as having little income, which could lead to the disparity.
Statewide and in Mower County, Latinos tend to make less than whites. In Mower County, Latinos had a median household income of $28,281 compared to $36,795 for white households, according to census figures.
That trend was mirrored statewide where the census found median household income for whites ($48,288) was higher than Asians ($45,520), Latinos ($35,933), blacks ($28,926) and American Indians ($28,533).
Hull sees more wealth moving to town whenever she looks outside. New homes seem to go up every day in her subdivision, many of them with prices only a bit less than what builders get in Twin Cities suburbs.
Hull spends her days with her two young daughters. After living in a city, she said there isn't much to do in Austin, just church, school and golfing and swimming at the country club.
Hormel uses the immense Austin Country Club to attract and keep executives who could work elsewhere. The club features an 18-hole golf USGA golf course, tennis courts and formal dining. On a recent Friday morning, the parking lot was sprinkled with Cadillacs.
It's not the sort of place where Narvaez spends her time. From 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. she works as a secretary at The Welcome Center, a nonprofit group that helps Austin's new Latinos get settled. Then she goes home to the infant daughter she's raising alone.
Narvaez, who grew up in Mexico and south Texas, is in better shape than many Latinos who move to town. She speaks flawless English and has an associate degree. Most new immigrants, she said, are not so lucky.
They arrive speaking little English and expecting an immediate job. Instead, many wait for months living with relatives or friends. And since the recession began a couple of years ago, she said many of them wind up working only part-time and bringing home about $200 a week.
That's far more than many of them would make back home, but then again the cost of living is much higher. "Some of them have to decide: What is more important, paying the rent or paying the gas bill?"
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