Katherine Kersten’s Nov. 17 column “Met Council is mixed up on poverty” suggested that we should all be very afraid — afraid of a “top-down vision” council “taking on a grandiose social mission.”
As someone who has been part of a group working with the Metropolitan Council to develop the Fair Housing Equity Assessment, I see it differently. The council is in fact working with cities and community groups to develop a common-sense, collaborative approach to one of our region’s most pressing problems: the isolation of too many low-income families and communities of color from the region’s “opportunity assets” — jobs, good schools, safe streets, transit, and decent affordable housing. This isolation prevents these growing and essential communities from helping to build our region.
It is well-documented that the Twin Cities ranks among the worst regions in the country in terms of racial disparities in education, job access, homeownership and other indicators. Many factors contribute to these disparities, but one major cause is the isolation of many low-income families in locations where they are often cut off from the things families rely on to succeed. The result is what the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development refers to as “racially concentrated areas of poverty.” One of the many useful things the Fair Housing Equity Assessment is doing is demonstrating the dramatic expansion of these concentrated areas of isolation, as they have spread into larger areas in Minneapolis and St. Paul and into the suburbs.
To her credit, Kersten acknowledges that “helping low-income and minority residents achieve success should be one of our most important goals.” She then suggests, however, that until we address “self-destructive behaviors,” all other strategies will be doomed to failure. This is a very narrow and highly debatable view of the causes of and solutions to poverty. The fact is, we know that when poor families get access to high-performing schools; to transit that can enable them to reach good jobs; to healthy food options, and to a quiet safe street where their children can play, we’ve increased the chances those kids will become productive members of our community.
The Met Council is making the most explicit commitment in its history to doing what it can to address these issues. Although the contours of the council’s work in this area are still unfolding, some things are clear:
One, addressing these disparities in access will require both investments and strategies to increase opportunities in low-income neighborhoods and the expansion of access for poor families to higher-income neighborhoods. (Contrary to Kersten’s characterization, the Equity Assessment recognizes that both inner-city neighborhoods and suburbs contain a mix of opportunity assets and deficits, which strategies will need to account for.)
Two, the council recognizes that there are many efforts underway to address these issues, both in and outside of government; they can only be effectively addressed through collaboration and involvement of all stakeholders.
Three, the council is approaching these issues with both a sense of humility, recognizing the difficulty of antipoverty efforts, and a belief that these challenges are too important not to tackle in a comprehensive way.
Four, certain issues need a regionwide approach. The combination of poverty and isolation from opportunity is one, making the Met Council uniquely positioned to lead a regional conversation, leading to a regional action plan.
Social-justice advocates (me included) have criticized the Met Council in the past for failing to fulfill its responsibilities, such as in the area of affordable housing. The council has now made a commitment to do the right thing, and in a way that is anything but “top-down” or “grandiose.” We all ought to support the efforts and participate to help shape the regional response to this challenge.
Tim Thompson, of St. Paul, is president of the Housing Preservation Project.