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Minnesota must close its employment and wealth gaps

With the dust settling from a government shutdown in Minnesota, a debt-ceiling showdown in Washington, D.C., and recall elections in Wisconsin, a respite from political controversy would usually be in order.

With the dust settling from a government shutdown in Minnesota, a debt-ceiling showdown in Washington, D.C., and recall elections in Wisconsin, a respite from political controversy would usually be in order. But we know much remains to be done, both here in the Upper Midwest and nationally. Here in Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton is emphasizing jobs and House Republicans reform.

Compared to our neighbors to the east and the nation as a whole, Minnesota’s economic position is good. In June, Minnesota’s unemployment rate was 6.7 percent, compared to 7.6 percent in Wisconsin and 9.1 percent in the nation. Minnesota’s personal income per capita has ranged between 5 and 10 percent above the national average since the mid-1990s. Currently, we are at about 7 percent above average. In contrast, Wisconsin is 10 percent below the national average.

Of course, I don’t suspect too many Minnesotans are content or about to burst into applause. It was just reported that the state’s unemployment rate jumped to 7.2 percent in July. Furthermore, many global and national economic indicators have been trending downward and begun to rapidly deteriorating. Performing relatively well in a sinking ship does not provide an occasion for celebrating.

But amidst a sea of sloshing data and turbulent trajectories, two sets of data have stunned me over the past month. The first was a Pew Research Center report from late July that documented the wealth gaps between whites, Hispanics, and blacks in the United States. The median household wealth of white households was over $113,000 in 2009. In sharp contrast, the median household wealth of Hispanics was $6,325 and blacks $5,677. While I consider this a tremendous injustice, I did not think of Minnesota or Wisconsin specifically when I read the report. Now I do.

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Comparing Minnesota with Texas
Recently, I decided to compare employment data on Minnesota with Texas. With Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, entering the presidential race, I wanted to understand more about the intensely debated employment gains in the state. Nothing stood out until I turned to the employment status of population groups within each state. The most recent data is for 2010, a year in which Minnesota averaged 7.3 percent unemployment, a tick above our current level. Given all the clichés about “Minnesota nice” that circulate, one might suspect than employment is evenly distributed amongst all Minnesotans. But when I compared Minnesota to Texas I was startled. Despite having a lower overall unemployment rate than Texas, blacks in Minnesota had an unemployment rate of 22 percent in 2010. In Texas, the same rate stood at 13.4 percent. Hispanics or Latinos in Minnesota were also more likely to be unemployed.

As somehow who cares about equality and justice and Minnesotans, I found this comparison troubling. Upon extending the comparison, I became more disappointed. Despite having an overall unemployment rate well below the national average, Minnesota has the 3rd highest unemployment rate amongst blacks or African-Americans. In second, with one of the highest overall unemployment rates in the nation, is Michigan. With a 25 percent rate, Wisconsin “leads” the nation.

While the absolute level of unemployment of Hispanics and Latinos is not as dreadful, a comparison of unemployment between Hispanics or Latinos and whites in Minnesota is disturbing. Only six states have a larger disparity when the ratio of unemployment between these two groups is compared. This leads me back to the first set of data that appalled me — the wealth gaps between whites, blacks and Hispanics.

Unemployment data as indicator
The data on the wealth gaps between whites, blacks and Hispanics was compiled at the national scale. We do not know exactly how large these gaps are in each state. However, if we turn to unemployment data, we can presume with a relatively high level of certainly that Minnesota would be near (or at) the top of a list of states with the largest wealth gaps and Wisconsin would not be too far behind. From this perspective, Minnesota looks anything but nice.

As Minnesota’s representatives turn to jobs and reform, I simply seek to shine a spotlight on a glaring problem: closing the employment and wealth gaps within the state. I do not care how this is done, but it must be done.

Marvin Taylor is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Minnesota. His research focuses on the historical and economic geography of Minnesota.