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Twin Cities must accept some unflattering truths — and act to reduce disparities

The Twin Cities region faces a number of critical challenges as we consider our future. Our willingness and ability to proactively and effectively address issues such as affordable housing, quality health care, job creation, transportation, and education will determine whether the region remains one of the best places in the world to work and live.

In order to effectively address these issues, we must accept some unflattering and troubling truths about our region:

1) Despite our impressive historical overall performance, we have significant social and economic disparities on nearly every indicator. For example, while we have an average household income that is among the highest in the nation, our average black household income is among the lowest.

2) The populations that are struggling most with these disparities — nonwhite and poor residents — are growing rapidly as a percentage of our population. Therefore, without intervention we will trend downward on nearly every socio-economic indicator.

3) There are very few among us who are not exacerbating or reinforcing these disparities. These disparities are the product of decisions made every day by thousands and thousands of individuals and organizations around the region. Decisions such as whom to hire, where to live, and even with whom to have lunch can hurt or help.

Consequences will have statewide impact
Nearly three years ago, the Itasca Project commissioned a study from the Brookings Institution to help us understand the magnitude and implications of the disparities in the region. The findings in its “Mind the Gap” report were a call to action for us — as citizens and as employers.  These disparities not only offend our sensibilities about the community we want to live in, they have very real, adverse fiscal and economic consequences for our region – consequences that will impact all of Minnesota.

Perhaps the most clear and unsettling economic effect of these growing disparities will be on the quality of our future workforce. The children who are in the workforce pipeline today have a poverty rate more than twice as high as the baby boomers they will replace. Given all we know about the link between poverty and low educational attainment, this has enormous negative implications for our region’s economic competitiveness.

These are issues of the heart and of the mind. 

Itasca Project participants, based on these findings, have committed to take on a number of initiatives to directly impact these disparities — for example, our strategic planning work with the Minneapolis Public Schools. In addition, we are committed to telling everyone we can about these issues and encouraging action. Our speaker’s bureau has reached more than 12,000 residents in church, work and civic settings all around the region.

For many of you, these disparities are old news. The 2007 “Wilder Research Survey of Twin Cities Region Residents” found that 91 percent of residents of our region have at least heard of these disparities. However, only about half of residents believe they are a big problem. To us, this means that there is a still a significant need for education on this topic.

‘Close the Gap’ series to begin Sunday

For that reason, we have partnered with Twin Cities Public Television to develop a five-part documentary series that brings the facts to life with the stories of organizations and individuals who are facing these issues every day. The series will premiere on tpt Channel 2 Sunday at 6 p.m. with “Close the Gap: The Case for Change,” a one-hour summary of the five episodes (which will air the following five Saturdays on Channel 17).

While the facts may be depressing, the series is not. Each episode focuses on ways people are making a positive difference. Our intention is to help inspire more such action.

We are not naïve enough to believe that small, individual gestures are all that is needed. The scope of the challenges facing our region will require actions both large and small, involving thoughtful public policy and creative private-sector initiative.

The Itasca Project is a non-partisan alliance and our participants span the political spectrum. While we may not always agree on the most appropriate mechanisms to help reduce disparities, we all agree that these growing disparities require immediate attention and effort from of all of us.

There are innumerable ways that you can help — from teaching a child to read to offering to carpool with a colleague with limited transportation options. For more ideas and information on these disparities, please visit Twin Cities Compass.

We hope that you will tune in this Sunday and throughout the series. We think you’ll agree – and hope you’ll help spread the word — that addressing our region’s socioeconomic disparities is not just the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do.

Mary Brainerd and Jim Campbell are co-chairs of the Itasca Project. Brainerd is the CEO of HealthPartners; Jim Campbell retired as CEO of Wells Fargo MN.

Want to add your voice?

If you’re interested in joining the discussion by writing a Community Voices article, email Susan Albright at salbright [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Stephen Dent on 04/04/2008 - 12:54 pm.

    Thank you to Mary Brainerd and Jim Campbell for keeping our eye on the ball. If Minnesota and the Twin Cities continue to allow poverty, transportation and education to slide, we will become the “cold Omaha” Hubert Humphrey once warned us about. Over the last four decades, I feel Minnesotan have transformed from being a rather socially caring society into an individualistic-centric society where we take care of ourselves, even at the expense of others. Examples include our failure to adequately fund transportation (after all, we individuals have cars and don’t need public transportation) and education (we send our kids to private schools, so who cares what happens in Minneapolis Public Schools).

    Our new emigrants may not look like us, but they do want the same things our ancestors wanted; a healthy, prosperous and peaceful life. In time, we will be handing the reins over to the next generation. Let’s make sure they’re equipped with the skills, values, and integrity that made Minnesota such a great state for most of the twentieth century.

  2. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 04/05/2008 - 12:24 pm.

    I completely agree with Stephen Dent.

    Nearly five years ago, I moved back here after a 19-year absence, and while there’s still a lot of the old socially conscious Minnesota spirit left, there’s just enough of the new nastiness (brought in from other states already ruined by the “it’s all about me and my money” crowd?) to hinder efforts to make Minnesota’s future as bright as its past.

    Underlying racism has long been a problem here. As I recall, the Twin Cities were a fairly compact metropolitan area until school desegregation came along. I actually heard parents say that they didn’t want their children going to school with black children. (I’m white, so I guess they assumed that I’d agree with them.)

    The newest immigrants are almost all people of color, so the suburbanites who left the cities thirty years ago to avoid African-Americans are disinclined to care about new immigrants from Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. As long as THEY and THEIR children are fine, they can pretend that those dark-skinned people in the cities are irrelevant.

    Well, guess what. They’re not irrelevant.

    Those people that you are so smugly neglecting are even now taking care of your elders in the region’s nursing homes. They’re cleaning your offices and public buildings. They are hard-working people, many of whom have suffered traumas that no one in Eagan or Maple Grove can even imagine.

    In a few years, their children will be a large percentage of the region’s potential workforce. They want to succeed. If you take any of the buses that go past MCTC, you’ll see that it’s mostly immigrants and African-Americans getting on and off.

    Part of their future depends on their own initiative, of course, but a lot of things can sap a person’s initiative, and one of them is anger at being ignored, rejected, feared, dismssed as unimportant, and ridiculed.

    I don’t always agree with Jesse Jackson, but he once said something that rang true to me, “We’ll know that racism is dead when a mediocre black person has the same chance in life as a mediocre white person.”

  3. Submitted by John Olson on 04/08/2008 - 09:15 pm.

    The disparities outlined are not unique to the Twin Cities region and I think we have to be very careful to not overlook the changes occurring in rural areas of the state. Migrants are moving into these rural areas, but the ability of local areas to provide services are becoming strained as the overall economic situation deteriorates. Schools in these areas are particularly strained since many have been forced to consolidate to survive and many operate on very lean budgets.

    As I travel across the state, I have found places where local communities have opened their arms and communities to these “new” Minnesotans. They don’t fuss about it nor do they want any fuss. Some of what I have seen firsthand is downright amazing.

    But there are other parts of this state where the “we versus they” mentality is very much alive and thriving. Part of this I believe is due to weak local economies and a resentment from long-time residents not wanting to accept the economic or demographic changes taking place in their community.

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