From the Iron Range to north Minneapolis and from almost everywhere else, news stories by the dozens over the last month are reinforcing that Minnesota in pandemic recovery mode must also address decades of widening inequalities and disparities — by region, by race and by economic class.
Among those headlines:
An April 11 Star Tribune front-page story (“Spotty broadband, rural toll”) revealed a family on Minnesota’s Iron Range coping with COVID-19 by driving 15 miles to a McDonald’s parking lot and connecting to high-speed Wi-Fi there so that kids could do online homework and mom could do basic household business. Given the emerging importance of telehealth, rural regional leaders in the article emphasized once again that high-speed broadband in Greater Minnesota must now be considered basic public infrastructure, a matter of regional equity, and no longer an optional luxury.
An April 7 MinnPost article (“A ‘prolonged tornado’: how north Minneapolis leaders are responding to the fallout from COVID-19”) quotes local leaders predicting that unemployment and economic damage to Minnesota’s African-American community will surpass that of the 2007-09 Great Recession, when the jobless rate for blacks in Minnesota hit 25 percent.
From a broader perspective, as part of the New York Times’ series on “The America We Need,” Minneapolis Council Member Jeremiah Bey Ellison added a powerfully eloquent and moving perspective on how the pandemic exacerbates the structural racism that has denied opportunity to people of color on the Northside, in Minnesota, and the nation. (“Stop Talking About Inequality and Do Something About It, April 15”).
Numerous other articles in state and national media have documented the pandemic’s devastating impact on already fragile low-wage workers who are losing both their jobs and private health-care coverage. Impacts are acute also on working women and mothers, on our hard-working immigrant communities, on the homeless and on low-income seniors, and on the estimated one-third of American households that even before the outbreak were employed but still economically vulnerable. Another New York Times special commentary (“America Will Struggle After Coronavirus. These Charts Show Why”) reviewed the facts showing four decades of growing economic and racial inequality.
Ironically, many of our most underpaid and economically insecure Minnesotans also are emerging as the front-line heroes and most essential workers in the coronavirus fight. They are grocery store employees, child-care providers, service workers and delivery people, meatpackers, personal care attendants and nursing home employees, and more. This extraordinary crisis exposes the severe imbalance and inequities in their compensation as opposed to people in the top half of the income hierarchy. It accentuates how crucial (and disregarded until now) they really are to our collective economic and community health and well-being. COVID-19 provides a truly harsh lesson on the importance of this basic interdependence.
We can build out of this travail an improved socioeconomic contract, for more inclusive and equitable growth and a more just society, so that all of us have the tools, the opportunities, and the fair compensation to thrive together and to weather future adversity, including climate change. And we actually have a pathway forward to suggest to our fellow Minnesotans, in the form of The Minnesota Equity Blueprint, recently published after two years of research by Growth & Justice and OneMN.org.
This Blueprint is generating positive reviews statewide, including an op-ed by Patrick Henry, retired executive director of the Collegeville (MN) Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research. Writing in the April 2 St. Cloud Times, Henry notes that although the Blueprint was published just before the COVID-19 pandemic began to dominate our lives, its 141 recommendations are more pertinent than ever, as economic insecurity and regional and racial inequalities are now magnified.
Henry describes the pandemic as “The Big Subject’’ and the problems and solutions in the Blueprint as an “Even Bigger Subject.’’ The former has dramatized the need for the latter, including public investment to address child-care shortages, universal and affordable health care, mobility options for Greater Minnesota, and climate action. “Coronavirus is a dress rehearsal for even bigger things, such as the climate crisis,” writes Henry.
One of the featured recommendations in the Blueprint squarely addresses the rural broadband disparity and the urban “digital divide.’’ The report explains in detail how Minnesotans without high-speed internet can’t run their businesses, do their jobs, attend school, seek medical help, or function as consumers. The Blueprint proposes an ambitious multiyear state investment over at least a decade to ensure that construction proceeds regardless of location or market strength. In the COVID aftermath, robust and affordable anywhere-for-anyone broadband will continue to be central to the recovery and continued operations of our communities, economy and society at large.
COVID can be our crucible of long-term change for the better, if we choose. And our Minnesota Equity Blueprint could be the first draft of that new socioeconomic contract for a more inclusive, equitable and secure prosperity across the North Star State.
Jane Leonard and Dane Smith are, respectively, current and former presidents of Growth & Justice, a nonprofit research organization that advocates for a more equitable and inclusive prosperity in Minnesota.
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