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.