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Minnesota's economic inequality: We have enough for all to have enough

Call it by any name you like — "income disparity" or "economic inequality" or "widening gap" or "wealth divide" — the point is the same: The rich are indeed getting richer and the poor are indeed getting poorer. The top 1 percent of us on the income ladder are benefiting from a growing and unprecedented share of income and wealth, while also enjoying historically low federal and state tax rates despite chronic budget shortfalls.

Now let's look down the ladder at statistics that are even more disturbing for those of us stuck on the bottom. These are our officially impoverished, and they are once again primary targets for all-cuts budget pressures at the federal and state level.

Poverty trends for Minnesota over the last decade are downright embarrassing. Inconvenient as the two recessions were on wealthy stockholders (and they've already recovered!), those private-sector failures were much more devastating for the hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans without stock options, or second homes, or any home, or who lost jobs or benefits or who got swindled into poverty through the mortgage scandal.

We've dropped out of the best 10 states
A few lowlights: We have dropped out of our traditional place among the best 10 states with the lowest percentage of our population living in poverty. Our poverty growth rate from 1999 to 2009 was fourth highest in the nation (only Mississippi, Georgia and South Dakota got poorer faster). In just one year, from 2008 to 2009, we added 57,000 people (the population of Woodbury) to the official poverty ranks, leaving some 563,000 Minnesotans, or about 11 percent of our population, in that category.

In 2011, the top 10 percent of households in Minnesota are projected to have about 45 percent of the state's total personal income, while the bottom 10 percent will have less than 1 percent of income. Thus, if that bottom 10 percent could double its share of income, the other 90 percent would only lose 1 percentage point of its share of total personal income.

As leaders of A Minnesota Without Poverty and of Growth & Justice, we believe there is enough for all to have enough, and we have faith that most Minnesotans believe this, too.

And so we urge policymakers of all parties and ideologies to rally around a new commitment to dramatically reduce poverty and to invest wisely in rebuilding our human capital by creating the most highly educated work force in the United States. We specifically urge Gov. Mark Dayton and the Minnesota Legislature to set end-of-decade goals for dramatically reducing or eliminating poverty and for boosting our higher education attainment rate.

Help from others needed
Efforts by individuals, nonprofits, churches and businesses must also be part of the solution. Our federal, state and local governments are not solely responsible for alleviating poverty. But it is a primary obligation, and we believe our governments must play a much stronger role. Only the public sector can operate at a scale sufficient to ensure access, equity and opportunity for our half-million fellow Minnesotans in poverty.

These goals make business sense. As the Legislative Commission to End Poverty report put it: "Failing to address poverty has diminished the economic viability of the state, with negative consequences for all Minnesotans. To allow poverty to continue is to rob our state of the talent, skills and contributions our economy and communities need."

Here's what we need to start doing, in keeping with six recommendations of that legislative commission. (For details, visit the resources section of A Minnesota Without Poverty's website.)

• Modernize our education system to build the best work force in the nation.

• Restore work as the pathway out of poverty.

• Help Minnesotans build and maintain financial assets.

• Refocus and redesign public assistance.

• Revitalize communities through investments in physical infrastructure and person-to-person support.

• Develop an ongoing structure to monitor our effort to end poverty.

Let's also dispel the notion that we as Americans or Minnesotans don't care, or that these growing inequalities are inevitable. It's not true that most Americans are unsympathetic or that we believe the fate of the poor is simply different from ours.

Opposition to slashing public investments
Recent polling shows not only general sympathy for the less well off — perhaps many more Americans feel in peril of near-poverty themselves after the recession — but very specific opposition to slashing those public investments that maintain our weakened safety net.

A national survey by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research found strong opposition to proposed cuts by Congress in education programs in high-poverty areas, meals for the elderly and Head Start funding. And there was even strong opposition to cutting direct cash and food assistance for the poor, typically the target of anti-welfare demagoguery.

This opinion data is convincing, but we find just as compelling the personal testimony we hear all the time about the importance of this goal.

The wisdom of youth
One recent Sunday morning a question was posed to a congregation that had just watched a PowerPoint presentation about A Minnesota Without Poverty: "What do you think? Is it possible to end poverty in Minnesota by 2020?"

At first there was silence. Then from one side of the room a rather small voice answered, "Well, probably not right away and not all at one time, but if we take things one step at a time, I think we can end poverty." The whole group turned and looked at the speaker, who revealed that he was "12 — but going on 13."

With that wise and hopeful attitude, we can realize a Minnesota without poverty by the time that boy is in his mid-20s. He and we know that we do have enough for all to have enough.

Nancy Maeker is a Lutheran pastor and the executive director of A Minnesota Without Poverty, a statewide movement to end poverty by 2020. AMWP is a partner in a similar national effort, the Half in Ten Campaign. Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a policy research group that seeks broader prosperity for Minnesota through smart investments in human capital and physical infrastructure. A version of this article appeared in Capitol Report.

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Comments (5)

There's an interesting and illustrative anecdote that describes our current economic dilemma and disconnect:

"At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, Kurt Vonnegut informs his pal, Joseph Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel Catch 22 over its whole history. Heller responds, "Yes, but I have something he will never have . . . Enough.."

I have known people who, through the coupling of their ingenuity with their good fortune of living at the just the right time in history (or their blessing, if you will) and a fair (though not always exhaustive) amount of work, provided exactly the products needed at exactly the right moment as to allow themselves to grow substantially wealthy as the owners of the companies they founded in order to carry out their ideas.

Indeed, the history of Minnesota is littered with such people who, through the combination of fortunate timing with their own efforts and skills founded companies which were tremendously profitable and grew wealthy in the process.

Still, in the cases of which I'm aware, most of those founders also founded families in which their offspring learned what it meant to have "enough" and what it meant to be a worthwhile human being in the context of a wider human society (often in response to an underlying religious faith).

How have we gone so wrong? It is my theory that the damage done to children since the advent of the isolated nuclear family post WWII, resulting from the reality that extended families no longer lived in close proximity, coupled with the isolating after effects of so many men having experienced the horrors of war and thus sharing a certain set of dysfunctions when it came to interpersonal relationships...

The damage caused by these factors which resulted in the circumstance that far too many children could be treated badly and not "loved up" sufficiently to prevent the wounds from that bad treatment from hardening into personality dysfunctions,...

has had the result that far too many of us are NOT able to experience satisfaction on a day to day basis. Such people, no matter what their circumstances are always dis-satisfied. The aspect of their personality which would allow them to experience such satisfaction has been beaten (literally or figuratively) out of them.

It is the nature of our current consumerist society to seek to provide an amazing variety of goods and services (some legal, some not) which promise those who are so hungry for it, a sense of satisfaction, but such things always and only provide temporary amusement for those who pursue them, rather than the satisfaction they promise.

That amusement does not last long and, hence, those who are unable to feel "satisfied" develop a difficult-to-identify addiction to such amusements, in all their many and varied forms, in the often unconscious hope that at some point SOMETHING will provide them with a sense of satisfaction of fulfillment.

This wish for satisfaction and fulfillment underlies the motivation of an entirely other kind of wealthy person - one who has become rich not as the result of creating and producing a useful, helpful new product which benefits society in general, but out of the need to support a wish fulfillment "habit" that wish being that some form of amusement will provide them with satisfaction.

These folks, both the wealthy and those so wrapped up in their own desire for wish fulfillment as to be unquestionably supportive of and admiring of those who are already wealthy, are motivated by that addiction to vainly seeking the sastisfactions they can never achieve (being unable to experience satisfaction) in pursuing ever more expensive (and often personally corrosive) amusements.

Thus, when it comes to accumulating wealth and restructuring society in unjust and immoral ways in order to draw unconscionable and completely unjustified portions of the proceeds of everyone's labor into their own pockets, such folks can never have or get "enough," nor can they vicariously experience the effects that such restructuring of society has on those whom they are directly responsible for impoverishing (because the aspects of their personality which would allow them to experience empathy and compassion are also generally missing).

They are completely unable to comprehend the essential truth that the "hedge fund manager" in the anecdote above, will NEVER be happy in anything more than a fleeting way, and, although he has not added anything of value to human society in general, will continue to pursue ever-higher levels of income and accumulate ever higher levels of wealth in the dysfunctional need to discover ANYTHING that take him beyond amusement to satisfaction.

No matter how much wealth he gains, his life will have NO value, even to himself. When challenged over his excessive accumulation of wealth he will respond in essence, "I'm not satisfied yet, how can you expect me to share with anyone else?"

We simply can't allow such people and those who admire, envy, and come dangerously close to worshiping them, to continue to pursue their dysfunctional addictions to the idea that the solution to their dissatisfaction lies anywhere but in their own mirrors and in finding healing for their own wounded psyches.

If we do not begin to realize that there is something fundamentally "wrong" with such people...

if we do not begin to prevent them from pursuing their addiction to gaining ever more wealth no matter what the cost to society...

if we do not begin to challenge their sense that the injustices they constantly perpetrate and NOT justified...

they will destroy society as we know it, taking us into fascism and constant martial law in order to protect themselves from their impoverished and powerless brothers and sisters...

all those whom they have granted the "freedom" of having nothing left to lose and who have nothing left to give to gain a better life for their children and grandchildren but their own lives.

Even these dysfunctional wealthy folks don't actually want society to go where they are inevitably going to take us. They certainly will not thank us for standing in their way, but our children and grandchildren will.

I can only hope that, here in Minnesota, Governor Dayton has the internal strength and is given adequate support to enable him to do so.

As a third generation Minnesotan -- now 78 and with a view of our state's history -- it saddens me to see the decline in our state in so many venues.We were always near the top in those things that are important to a society: education, health, innovation, and caring for the less fortunate.

We seemed to have strong ethics of work, caring, sharing, and concern. Now seemingly GONE, or at least greatly diminshed

Those qualities have eroded in recent years on the altar of less taxes, less involvement, and diminished societal caring.

Indeed, the wounds of the Pawlenty years may never be fully healed; but my hope it will be a lesson learned if we are to return to the"golden" Minnesota of the past. One can only hope so!

One of my friends is of the opinion that Minnesota began to go downhill when all sorts of conservatives from the Sun Belt moved up here for the "quality of life," not realizing that you can't have a Minnesota quality of life with Alabama taxes.

I grew up in Minnesota from the 1950s through the early 1970s and lived here again in the early 1980s. Then I moved to Oregon for 19 years and came back in 2003.

The state I grew up in was sometimes controlled by Republicans and sometimes by Democrats, but in either case, the state was well run, and it felt as if both parties were serving the public interest, disagreeing not about their goals but about the means to achieve those goals.

I visited at least once a year between 1984 and 2003, but nothing prepared me for the experience of living here again. Continual exposure to the deliberate ignorance, naked selfishness, obsessive Puritanism, and gleeful meanness of some of the Republicans makes me feel as if a large percentage of Minnesotans are changelings.

Mention income equality to this crowd and they start screaming "class warfare!" or making racist comments or stating that people are poor because they're lazy.

It's disturbing.