Katherine Kersten is right about one thing: The greater Twin Cities metropolitan region is rapidly diversifying (“Met Council is mixed up on poverty,” Nov. 17). Metropolitan Council forecasts tell us that 43 percent of our residents will be people of color by 2040.
What Kersten doesn’t acknowledge is the positive impact we can have on our region if we identify and remove the barriers that keep many of our residents of color in poverty.
Recent census data show the Minneapolis-St. Paul region is recovering slowly from the recession of the last decade, and that middle- and high-income households are recovering more quickly.
But the same analysis shows that poverty in our region continues to increase. And if you’re a person of color, you’re more likely to be in poverty than are your white neighbors. The recession exacerbated this problem.
Among the 25 largest metropolitan areas in the United States, the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul region has both the highest poverty rate among people of color and the largest employment gap between whites and people of color.
But why should all of us, no matter our economic circumstances, care about this gap?
If you care about the economy, you should care about the employment gap and the poverty it creates. A new study funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation says that closing the earnings gap by 2030 would increase gross domestic product by $5 trillion a year. If you’re a taxpayer, this kind of growth also means spreading the responsibility for funding the government and reducing dependence on public programs.
Addressing disparities and inequities that manifest themselves in employment and education gaps and concentrated areas of poverty that disproportionately impact people of color is as important to the success of the public and private sectors as it is to the people who face these challenges daily. So we must ask ourselves: How how do we turn this conversation from one of obstacles to one of endless opportunities?
Today, the Metropolitan Council is in the process of developing a report called the Fair Housing and Equity Assessment that will help us dig deeper into the data and plan to address shortcomings. What we already know is that our region offers both good news and bad news when it comes to opportunities for all.
First, the good news: No matter where you live in our region, there are opportunities. Some areas have better proximity to jobs, while others are safer or have better access to good schools or amenities like parks.
Now, the bad news: While every area has strengths, some areas face substantial barriers to opportunities and have become concentrated areas of poverty. Moreover, residents in these areas are predominately people of color, and more than 40 percent of the residents within these areas live in poverty today.
Historical data show us that these areas have existed for decades and are expanding. Personal responsibility cannot overcome all of these barriers to opportunity. Organizations and systems we built over time created advantages for certain populations and disadvantages for others.
Today, policymakers often operate on an equality model. Giving every person the same pair of shoes to run the race when one has ill-fitting shoes and the other person has a 100-yard start isn’t really equal.
The Met Council’s draft of the next regional plan, “Thrive MSP 2040,” states that “equity connects residents to opportunity and creates viable options for people of all races, ethnicities and incomes so that all communities share the opportunities and challenges of growth and change.”
Some fear that this will become a “top-down vision” imposed by elites. But the fact is, a region that shares both opportunities and challenges and that seeks to improve the lives of its entire population is stronger and more vibrant.
So what does equity mean when it comes to racially concentrated areas of poverty? Better access to jobs, housing and transportation opportunities will be part of the answer. We know that how we act and whom we include in the process will matter.
We don’t have all the answers, which is why the council, along with partners from the Corridors of Opportunity collaboration and other organizations including the Wilder Foundation, will partner in early 2014 to further discuss a vision and plan to reduce areas of concentrated poverty. We can’t answer that question without asking the people who live in those areas. We need a new paradigm to improve access to economic opportunity for all of our residents so that persistent racial disparities become a part of our past and do not determine our future vitality.
Susan Haigh is chair of the Metropolitan Council. MayKao Hang is president of the Wilder Foundation and cochair of the Itasca Socio-Economic Disparities Work Group. Chris Ferguson is chair of the Business Resources Collaborative and president and CEO of Bywater Business Solutions.