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Poverty in the Twin Cities: The stories we tell ourselves matter

Efforts to improve conditions in low-income communities must address the systemic barriers that lie at the root of so much of our region’s economic and social inequity.

We must also wrestle with the reality that, in the Twin Cities, racial disparities are both social and spatial.

For some, the dominant storyline in the Twin Cities is that we are a vibrant and healthy place. We frequently make “top 10” lists of places to live because of our numerous social and economic assets. We are highly educated, mostly healthy and home to dozens of Fortune 100 and 500 companies. But for all the Twin Cities successes, one can point to real problems as well. The region benefits from numerous assets, but it continues to be unable to translate these benefits to everyone, specifically to communities of color. This truth is becoming more widely known and accepted in the Twin Cities, as report after report shines light on the numerous racial disparities in our region.

Neeraj Mehta

We must also wrestle with the reality that, in the Twin Cities, these racial disparities are both social and spatial.

Which means:

  • They show up in certain geographies and not others.
  • That in the Twin Cities race, place and well-being are highly correlated and
  • That where you live too often affects whether you have access to the resources you need to thrive, like quality schools, banks you can trust, access to healthy foods, good jobs, affordable housing and transportation.
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One approach to addressing our regional inequities would be to follow the all-too-common narrative that poverty is the fault of the people experiencing poverty and to avoid talking about the historical and ongoing ways in which racial dynamics produce inequities between whites and people of color in the Twin Cities. This narrative has as its centerpiece the belief that the reason people of color are disproportionately poor in the Twin Cities has everything to do with their individual choices, and nothing to do with a history of racial, social and economic injustice.

To follow that storyline is to avoid reflecting on the truth of how larger forces in society — racial discrimination, a lack of economic opportunity and failing public schools — adversely impact the lives of people of color in the Twin Cities.

Nelima Sitati

Minneapolis and St. Paul and our surrounding suburbs and exurbs are places that, like most in America, reflect a history of policymaking that exacerbated rather than ameliorated the challenges faced by poor people of color. Policies which subsidized white flight from certain communities and restricted low-income people and people of color’s access to others. Because race played such a distinct role in shaping our neighborhoods and region, it must continue to be a central consideration for our community development efforts. Our efforts to improve conditions in low-income communities must address the systemic barriers that lie at the root of so much of our region’s economic and social inequity, many of which have been built on institutional and structural racism.

Everybody deserves to live in a community rich with opportunity, and conscious efforts to develop a shared understanding of the region amongst diverse constituencies can make a difference in our efforts to achieve greater racial, social and economic equity in the Twin Cities.  With the demographics of our region changing rapidly, this is of greater importance than ever to our ability to continue making those ”top 10” lists.

This is why a coalition of advocates and organizations working across low-wealth communities of color in the Twin Cities region has come together to pursue equitable investments, policies, and opportunities across the region. Guiding principles for our work include:

  • Inequality is bad for our communities and our region.
  • Equitable growth reduces inequality and is good for everyone.
  • Equitable growth requires intentional planning, policymaking, and implementation.

Too often resource and policy decisions that affect low-income communities and communities of color are made without significant input from those communities. One way in which we are trying to change this pattern is by engaging in a process led by the Metropolitan Council to create a “Fair Housing and Equity Assessment” for our region. The Fair Housing and Equity Assessment (FHEA) is intended to address the disparate burdens and benefits experienced by different groups across our region.

Engaging with the Metropolitan Council in its development of our region’s (FHEA) is not just important to communities of color in our region, it is important to all of us. The FHEA gives us, for the first time in a long time (if not ever), the opportunity to bring together multiple stakeholders across jurisdictions and geographies, including the residents most affected by these disparities, to have an honest discussion about the complex factors and history that create and reinforce racial inequality in the Twin Cities, and to rethink the way we go about addressing the problems of race, place and poverty in our region.

Neeraj Mehta and Nelima Sitati provide leadership to the Equitable Opportunities Project of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs and the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability.


If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at