Evidence of rising poverty and declining incomes among this state’s African-Americans rocks much of what Minnesotans want to believe about themselves. It’s painful to know that in prosperous, fair-minded Minnesota, poverty deepened for one — and only one — racially distinct subset of the population between 2013 and 2014.
Pain can be a prod to positive action. That’s what Minnesotans are already seeing from Gov. Mark Dayton and other quarters in response to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey report earlier this month. It showed that as median incomes held steady for the state population as a whole, they fell 14 percent for African-Americans. The poverty rate for that cohort swelled from 33 percent in 2013 to 38 percent in 2014.
Those are dramatic changes for a single 12-month period — so much so that it’s tempting to look only at recent history to explain them. What changed in one year? The short answer from state demographer Susan Brower: Minnesota saw a net increase of 14,000 foreign-born African-Americans. More than half of those newcomers arrived after first living — and perhaps foundering — in other U.S. states. About a third of Minnesota’s black population is foreign-born. Many of them brought limited English skills and insufficient preparation for living-wage jobs.
That change is large enough in a total African-American population of about 312,000 to account for a good deal of the income slide. It’s not that foreign-born African-Americans aren’t working. To the contrary — their labor force participation rate exceeds that of white Minnesotans. But one immigrant in four lacks a high school diploma, sorely limiting his or her job prospects. A jump in part-time employment among African-Americans suggests that many are underemployed. Some wind up on welfare. While total enrollment in the state’s largest low-income family support program dropped from 2013 to 2014, Somali immigrant enrollment as of last December was up slightly over the same month in the previous year.
Helping new Minnesotans climb quickly out of poverty is no small challenge; these data attest to the importance of such efforts.
But the immigrant population ought not be the sole focus of Minnesota’s response to the alarm the new census report sounds. The picture isn’t pretty for other African-Americans, either. Among all blacks, native and foreign-born, four out of 10 children in Minnesota live in poverty, compared with just one out of 10 white children. One of every four potential black workers is an ex-felon, compared with one of 11 among all potential members of Minnesota’s workforce. Nearly half of the state’s black population has earned no more than a high school diploma, compared with about 30 percent of the white population. Black children are almost twice as likely as white ones to be born to an unmarried mother. The poverty numbers are only slightly better for American Indian and Hispanic Minnesotans.
Plainly, Minnesota is squandering precious human potential in its midst — just as its working-age population is forecast to begin a multidecade decline. This state faces an increasing imperative to improve the prospects of its nonwhite population. It will pay a steep price if it does not.
Regrettably, Minnesotans have lived with distress in the nonwhite population for so long that some may consider it an immutable fact of life. That may be why state Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL- Minneapolis, reports that his efforts to target educational or public-health programs to the African-American population have met with tepid responses at the State Capitol and little push from his party’s governor.
But that appears to be changing. Well before the latest census data arrived, Dayton directed his administration to improve diversity in state employment and procurement and to reach out to nonwhite populations. His Diversity and Inclusion Council has already made changes in recruitment and contracting practices, with more on the way.
That effort is paying off, attests Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle. He put his agency’s top managers — including himself — through training to increase their awareness of racial biases and convey a high-level message about the advantages of diversity to MnDOT’s operations. The result: 16 of 53 new hires in the metro area last year were people of color — a much higher share than ever before. “We didn’t change our standards. We changed the way we think about race,” Zelle said.
That is a change that needs to be encouraged throughout the state, in the public, private and nonprofit sectors. Many major employers, well aware of workforce demographics, are showing the way; others could use a push. New ways to meet the job training needs of people who lack high school diplomas should be considered. Business incubators should be available to support minority entrepreneurship. Programs like Better Futures Minnesota that guide ex-felons into the workforce should be encouraged.
It was heartening to hear Dayton say he intends to become personally involved in this effort. The governor should consider convening a high-profile summit meeting before the March 8 start of the next legislative session to enlist a wide variety of Minnesota leaders in a broad agenda. Dayton’s two winning gubernatorial campaigns promised “a better Minnesota.” What’s increasingly clear is that this won’t be a better state unless and until it becomes an economically healthier one for all.