Inequality is the issue of the day, both locally and nationally.
President Obama is expected to highlight income inequality in his State of the Union address Tuesday night. Among those attending will be Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, who made closing the educational achievement gap a central theme in her winning campaign last year. She’ll be the guest of U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., who has long made inequality a legislative priority.
The Twin Cities area is wrestling with some of the worst disparities in the country, and the numbers are not lost on Susan Haigh, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Council, who focused her State of the Region address Monday on a more equitable future for all.
Last year, Haigh emphasized strategic plans for transit and housing infrastructure. This year, she made the case for riders and residents, and how the Met Council can be part of the solution to one of the most important issues facing the region.
The statistics are stark. According to Met Council data, this is the worst region in the United States when considering racial disparities in employment, poverty and homeownership, and fourth-worst when calculating per capita income.
Census data tracking where these disparities hit hardest suggest that they are growing in size and share of the region’s population. In 1990, 31 census tracts were classified as “Racially Concentrated Areas of Poverty” (RCAPs), housing 3 percent of the region’s population. By 2011, 80 census tracts housing 9 percent of the region’s residents fit that description.
As the region, just like the nation, grows more diverse — 9 percent people of color in 1990 in the seven-county metro area, compared with a projected 43 percent in 2040 — it’s imperative that solutions are found.
The Met Council projects that if race-based income disparity could be eliminated by 2040, and 298,000 regional residents were moved out of poverty, there would be 182,000 more high-school graduates, 137,000 more people working and 216,000 more homeowners. This in turn would pump nearly $35 billion into the regional economy over the same 30-year span.
No one is suggesting that any single program or governing body will solve a problem as complex and severe.
Accordingly, Haigh spoke of “both-and” propositions to address inequities, such as affordable housing and a good job; job training and transit to get to a place of employment, and good schools and safe streets.
Progress is being made. The Central Corridor light-rail line, now called the Green Line, will begin operating June 14. The Green Line not only will better connect some in the RCAPs with jobs that can pull them out of poverty, but it also created 5,445 construction jobs and has sparked millions of dollars in development along the corridor, according to Met Council data. Key decisions on the proposed Green Line extension (Southwest light rail) will soon come back into focus with the release of several ongoing studies.
Rail is not the only transit key. The Met Council is looking to quickly expand bus rapid transit (BRT), like the Red Line that connects Apple Valley to Bloomington. And Gov. Mark Dayton’s bonding proposal includes $10 million for an urban BRT line that would connect the Green and Blue light-rail lines.
A much more aggressive, strategic build out of the transit system could happen if Dayton and the DFL-controlled Legislature work together to accelerate investment in transit. Dayton’s bold sales-tax funding proposal fell victim to politics last session. Election-year politics shouldn’t be an excuse for inaction this year.
With the nation increasingly focused on inequality, it’s time for Minnesota to do more to reduce disparities that if left unattended will hinder the state’s economic trajectory. Smart investments in transit and housing must be part of a broader strategy.