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Minneapolis’ fast-changing suburbs deal with unique challenges

As of last year the nonwhite population outnumbers the white population in Brooklyn Park.

Unless you live there, you probably didn’t take much notice of last month’s Brooklyn Center mayoral race. But in a way, it was one of the most interesting results out there. Mike Elliott, whose family immigrated from Liberia when he was 11, came within 150 votes of being the first African-American mayor of Brooklyn Center. Elliott’s near-victory reflects how many Twin Cities suburbs are rapidly growing more diverse; at the same time they're facing increasing rates of poverty. Given the tensions around suburban race relations in places like Ferguson, Missouri, do Twin Cities suburbs need to begin paying more attention to race and class divides?

Mike Elliott

Over the last 10 years, suburbs have been changing rapidly all around the country, and the Twin Cities have seen some of the most rapid changes. According to a 2013 Brookings Institution report, the Twin Cities rank in the top 10 nationwide in fastest growth rates of suburban poverty.

This trend has been most noticeable in suburbs like Brooklyn Park, Brooklyn Center, Richfield and Hopkins. For example, as of last year the nonwhite population outnumbers the white population in Brooklyn Park. The rise in both diversity and poverty poses lots of issues for these suburban cities, which have to deal with increasing foreclosure rates and a rapidly changing school system.

Suburban vs. urban poverty

When faced with concentrated poverty, suburban cities face a different set of challenges from many of their larger core-city counterparts. Myron Orfield heads the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota, and has been working on issues of regional equity for years.

Non-white population of selected suburbs
Minneapolis suburbs have seen their nonwhite populations increase in recent years, though the percentages are still lower than those in Ferguson, Missouri.
Source: U.S. Census

“Racially diverse older suburbs have especially hard problems because they tend to be places that don’t have lots of fiscal strength,” Orfield explained to me. “They tend to be discriminated against by real-estate agents and banks and have a limited amount that they can do.”

One of the key issues, according to Orfield, centers on the homogeneity of housing stock and infrastructure. Unlike center cities, most first-ring suburbs were built rapidly within a space of a few years, and so many of their homes, streets and schools are aging at the same time. This places large burdens on city budgets that can be hit hard by recession. For example, according to a Star Tribune report earlier this year, Brooklyn Center had some of the highest rates of mortgage forfeitures in Minnesota during the housing crisis.

But Twin Cities’ suburbs have a few advantages compared to many other metro areas. Regional policies like the Fiscal Disparities Act and the state’s unique Local Government Aid system help to offset the some of the inequalities between wealthy and poor suburbs in the Twin Cities.

Poverty rate of selected suburbs
Poverty is also on the rise in the suburbs.
Source: U.S. Census

“Fiscal disparities makes it better,” Orfield told me earlier this year. “And also these suburbs are helped by state school aid programs, but it’s still not equal. [These cities] don’t have a lot of tax base. Richfield or Brooklyn Park has half the tax base per household than Minneapolis has. That means that they have to tax harder.”

According to Orfield, despite the areas of concentrated poverty in cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul, core cities are greatly helped by their income and housing diversity. For every struggling neighborhood like North Minneapolis or Frogtown, core cities have places like Uptown or Highland Park where the tax base is healthier and can begin to offset the effects of concentrated poverty.

Diversity in Brooklyn Park

Just like its smaller neighbor, Brooklyn Park, one of the state’s largest cities, has changed rapidly over the last 10 years. Increasing poverty and shifting demographics have forced city leaders to quickly adapt to new issues like community policing, language barriers, and quality of life concerns.

Mike Trepanier

Mike Trepanier is a long-time Brooklyn Park City Council member who has worked on helping the city’s different cultures learn to work together.

“There’s been big demographic changes, like right now we’re 50 percent diverse,” Trepanier explained.  “Part of the issue when we talk about livability is cultures bumping up against each other. [For example] Liberians party at times different than what I was used to. It could be a graduation party or a baptism or any of those things, and so people would come and they would stay later and it would get noisy. They’re just having a good time, but neighbors say ‘I’ve got to sleep and work in the morning.’ So we work with the community to smooth that out.”

Nonwhite school enrollment
School enrollment data tells the story of increasingly diverse suburbs.
Source: National Center for Educational Statistics

Along with the school system, one of the most difficult issues in a place like Brooklyn Park is differing understandings about how to maintain yards and how to use public spaces. Cross-cultural communication and language barriers are challenges as well.

“We are trying to work at people becoming comfortable with the police,” Trepanier told me. “Our police and our city hall have access to language lines, so if we’re having a real hard time communicating, our staff can access a language line where they get an interpreter.”

To help better understand its rapid changes, Brooklyn Park has begun dividing up its neighborhoods into smaller quarter-square-mile areas to identify “neighborhood action zones” where they could focus on community outreach and quality-of-life concerns. They’ve targeted these areas for extra engagement around things like yard maintenance and housing quality.

Twin Cities’ suburbs vs. Ferguson

The recent attention to race relations and police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, has thrown suburban poverty into the national spotlight. Just as in the Twin Cities, Ferguson is a St. Louis suburb that has seen rapid changes in racial and economic patterns. Those changes are one of the big reasons that issues like segregation and police relations have come under scrutiny surrounding the death of Michael Brown earlier this year.

But there are a number of key differences between Twin Cities suburbs and Ferguson, Missouri. For example, even the most diverse Twin Cities’ suburbs don’t have the levels of racial segregation found in the St. Louis metro area. Similarly Twin Cities’ economic segregation has not reached Ferguson’s levels, where 17 percent of the population lives in poverty.

But, particularly when you look at the school system, some Twin Cities suburbs are not far behind. The number of students eligible for reduced or free school lunches, a common proxy for poverty rates, are close to 70 percent in cities like Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center. And as Orfield’s work shows, Twin Cities’ suburbs are changing more rapidly than in St. Louis. If current trends continue, in a few years the levels of concentrated suburban poverty found in Ferguson might not be unusual here in Minnesota.

Embracing the challenges of diversity

Though Mike Elliott didn’t win this year, Brooklyn Center did elect its first ever woman of color to the City Council. April Graves ran on a platform of bridging the city’s increasing divides around race and ethnicity. During the campaign, she wrote:

Whether you’re talking about the diversity of culture and ethnicity, or differences in age and generational worldview – [my background] would be an invaluable and unique asset that would give voice and insight to the council’s decision-making.

Given the challenges facing some rapidly changing suburbs in Minnesota and around the country, Graves will have a lot on her plate. Let’s hope she succeeds.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/08/2014 - 09:05 am.


    Is not moving to the suburbs. It’s growing.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/08/2014 - 12:02 pm.

    A bit more nuance, please

    As a long-time resident of Ferguson, I can assure readers that Ferguson residents, of whatever color or income level, attend school in at least 3 different school districts, depending upon the part of Ferguson in which they live. Most will attend schools in the Ferguson-Florissant school district, but some on the eastern edge of Ferguson might attend schools in the Riverview District, the Normandy school district, or, if it still exists, the Jennings school district. Because he lived with his grandmother on Ferguson’s eastern edge, Michael Brown graduated from Normandy High School in the Normandy district.

    • Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 12/08/2014 - 01:41 pm.

      good point

      Comparing places is very complex, and these measures are admittedly crude. Digging in to school systems, in particular, can be a challenge because district boundaries rarely match up with others (as you point out).

      Thanks for the feedback.

  3. Submitted by kevin terrell on 12/08/2014 - 12:18 pm.

    Immigrant population

    An interesting and likely illuminating analysis would be to examine the number of immigrants in Minnesota cities vs Ferguson and similar cities.

    Brooklyn Park, for instance, is 10 percent Liberian immigrants, and has a large population of Vietnamese immigrants. Those populations most certainly are poorer to start than americans who are born here. But I doubt they consider themselves “in poverty” and awaiting centrally mandated government services, per Mr Orfield’s prescribed “solution”.

    What part of this increased “poverty” in the suburbs is in fact a reflection of the presence of a motivated, upwardly mobile immigrant population that is just “passing through” the first income quartile on their way to the American dream?

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/08/2014 - 01:31 pm.

      Upwardly Mobile?!?

      Wage income for most Americans has been declining for decades, an upward mobility has become a joke. More than almost any other time in American history, people are locked into their class.

      Sorry to burst that whole American Dream ideological bubble, but facts are more important.

  4. Submitted by kevin terrell on 12/08/2014 - 03:11 pm.


    Well I’m sitting next to my Vietnamese wife who came here at age 13 speaking no English after being one of the “Boat People”. Graduated top of her class from Carlson School and had what can only be termed the best job offer in her class. Her parents came here in their 40’s and live in a giant house in the derided burbs drivng expensive imports after working minimum wage jobs for years. So yes. Facts are more important. Maybe we should seek out a full range of them and ask ourselves what they mean.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 12/08/2014 - 05:04 pm.

      How long ago was that?

      Seem to recall a rather abrupt change in direction say oh, about 30 years ago, give or take. While its wonderful that your inlaws have done well for themselves, its folly to assume that everyone, everywhere has been blessed with similar fortunes. Worse still to compare time periods with economic conditions that have no resemblence of each other, hey I might be a millionaire, if only I’d been born 20 years earlier.

    • Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 12/08/2014 - 10:26 pm.


      I think this piece has a fair share of facts. Your story is compelling, but what is the big picture?

      Thanks for the comment!

  5. Submitted by kevin terrell on 12/09/2014 - 12:46 pm.

    Double click

    the whole point of the initial comment is to drill down on the data to see what is really driving any purported changes in “poverty” in our suburbs. As I noted, I expect you would find that our situation in MN is quite different than a place like Ferguson.

    Some back of the envelope math: Brooklyn Park had a 5 pct point increase in poverty, which on a population of 70,000 or so is 3500 more “poor” people. That’s less than half the Liberian population alone in that city. When did Liberians start to move to Brooklyn Park in such large numbers? Are they and other immigrants in the city disproportionately poor? Even if they are “poor”, perhaps they tend to live near each other because they rely on family and friends for support, and closer is better for support (which was certainly historically true in this country). Perhaps poverty is not really the issue, but rather assimilation into American culture?

    If so, you reach very different conclusions about what can and “should” be done in order to address the issue. Conclusions that are very different than what certain ideologically-driven experts might suggest.

    So we an either accept what we are told is the “truth”, or we can dig a little deeper before spending billions of dollars and creating all kinds of mandates from our unelected friends at the Met Council.

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