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2016’s awfulness notwithstanding, here are 5 trends that improved in Minnesota this year

If the trends continue, 2017 could be a good year for the state.

In 2016, we said goodbye to Prince and a lot of other great musicians and actors, and MinnPost brought you stories about dreary — but real — Minnesota problems: health inequalities, achievement gaps, partisan gridlock, and the geographic disparities in Minnesota’s recovery from the Great Recession, to name a few.

As we prepare to ring in 2017, we think it’s time for some good news. Here are some things that are on the up and up in Minnesota. (But before you get too merry, note that caveats abound.)

1. Minnesotans are getting wealthier

By two important measures, Minnesotans are doing better financially than they were before.

According to Census data, the share of Minnesotans living in poverty has gone down, from 12 percent in 2014 to 10 percent in 2015, the most recently available data.

People in poverty in Minnesota, 2006-2015
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, compiled by Minnesota Compass

This was true for Minnesotans, on average, who live both in the metro area and outside of it.

“There was good news for the state as a whole: for the Twin Cities, as well as greater Minnesota,” said Craig Helmstetter, senior research manager at Minnesota Compass, a division of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation that tracks statistics on economics, education and quality of life in Minnesota.

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While the poverty rate remains a great deal higher for Minnesota’s racial and ethnic minorities, nearly 23 percent of whom live in poverty, than it is for whites, about 7 percent, both numbers have gone down.

This was encouraging to see, because poverty rates were slower to budge after the recession than other indicators of economic recovery, such as the number of jobs, Helmstetter said.

Minnesotans are also making more money: Between 2014 and 2015, the most recently available data, median household income in Minnesota rose nearly $2,000.

Median household income in Minnesota (in 2015 dollars), 2006-2015
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, compiled by Minnesota Compass

While income took a hit during the recession, the most recent available data shows it nearly back at 2006 levels.

Again, there are racial disparities when it comes to income: the median black family in Minnesota makes less than half what the median white family in Minnesota makes in a year, for instance. But both have risen since last year.

Seeing poverty and income on positive trajectories is important for Minnesota’s prosperity, Helmstetter said, as the two are connected to higher rates of homelessness. They’re also connected to poorer health.

Median household income by race and ethnicity
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, compiled by Minnesota Compass

2. High school graduation rates are going up

Another positive trend for Minnesota is school graduation rates. Last year, 82 percent of high school students graduated in four years, compared to 77 percent in 2011, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Education. The rate has increased steadily in the last five years.

"One of the main things that's helped graduation rates is districts are collecting more data on students," said Emily Bisek, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Education.

That helps educators identify and help students who need support or are at risk of not graduating, she said.

High school graduation rates, 2011-15
Source: Minnesota Department of Education

The Twin Cities have some of the worst racial disparities in education in the country, but high school graduation rate gains are seen for students of all races and ethnicities tracked by the state.

That’s good, since economists are predicting a tightening of Minnesota’s labor market, and some say the state will need all hands on deck in order to keep the economy moving along well. Of course, whether or not students are prepared for a career or college is another matter altogether.

3. More Minnesotans have health insurance

Politicians on both sides of the political spectrum concede that the Affordable Care Act and MNsure, the state’s government health insurance exchange, have problems, and those programs could change drastically under new administrations.

But they have contributed to much lower levels of uninsured Minnesotans, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Minnesotans under age 65 without health insurance
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, compiled by Minnesota Compass

“Health insurance has really become a basic necessity within a  family’s budget,” said Ben Horowitz, the Minnesota Budget Project’s policy advocate. “Without health insurance, a broken leg can lead to shattered finances — families choosing health over other necessities.”

WIth more people insured, health care providers are also reporting that they’re less frequently swallowing the costs of caring for patients who can’t afford their medical bills.

Uncompensated care declined for the second year in a row in 2015, from $305 million in 2014 to $268 million in 2015, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

4. Minnesota’s adding jobs

Minnesota’s 3.8 percent November unemployment rates was the twelfth lowest in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the state is adding jobs.

Employment, 2006-2015
Annual employment — which shows how many Minnesotans were working, on average, in a given year — continues to rise. An annual average for 2016, which would account for seasonal variation, isn't yet available, but quarter-for-quarter, 2016 employment numbers so far are above 2015 levels.
Source: Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development

The state’s economic forecast predicts employment will grow by 1 percent per year for the next few years.

Low unemployment comes with its own set of problems, but this is a good sign that Minnesota businesses want to hire people.

5. Minnesota’s representatives are getting more racially diverse

Minnesotans, who are becoming increasingly racially diverse, are electing more people of color to their local and state governments.

This year, a record 16 racial or ethnic minorities were elected to Minnesota’s statehouse. While the House and Senate still don’t reflect the diversity of the state, there were big gains this year, bringing the legislature a few steps closer to looking like the state.

Some bright spots for diversity include record numbers of African Americans and Native Americans in the state legislature, and the election of Ilhan Omar, the first Somali person ever to be elected to a state legislature in the United States.

Minorities in the Legislature
With 16 members who identify as racial or ethnic minorities, the 2017 Minnesota Legislature will have more people of color than ever before.
Source: Minnesota Legislative Reference Library, DFL, House Republican Caucus, Senate Republican Caucus