The first five words of a groundbreaking Star Tribune editorial page series last winter — “Greater Minnesota feels left behind” — help explain why appealing to rural resentment against a metro-area light-rail project became a key factor in a legislative impasse that will end up doing harm to both rural and metro regions.

Minnesota has arrived at that proverbial fork in the path, between the low road of regional enmity and envy or a higher road and a “One Minnesota” philosophy recommended and outlined in that series, titled “Better Together.”

The low road’s eventual destination might be foreseen by checking out the corrosive politics to our east. In an insightful new book, “The Politics of Resentment,” about Wisconsin’s increasingly bitter regional divide, political scientist Katherine J. Cramer describes in vivid detail a growing and worrisome “rural consciousness” in the Badger State.

The mind-set that Cramer documents is marked by a deep suspicion among rural folks that they are not getting their fair share of resources and that they are both subsidizing and being victimized by elites and racial minorities in metropolitan Wisconsin, mainly Milwaukee and Madison.

Here in the Gopher State, Minnesota’s geopolitical climate seems to be considerably less polarized than Wisconsin’s, perhaps owing to a somewhat stronger statewide economy. But some incitement of this largely white rural resentment is in play, and we’ve already taken one too many steps down the low road. Harsh criticism of metro-area legislators and business leaders for allegedly favoring Twin Cities transit needs and racial “equity” policies already are too prominent in this fall’s political debate.

The higher road is marked by a rural optimism and solidarity with metro Minnesota around statewide disparities and challenges. And it looks like this:

• In Northfield, years of persistence and collaboration by local community leaders in a partnership now called Northfield Promise is paying off. The four-year high school graduation rates for Latino students has climbed over the past decade, from 27 percent to 83 percent, while the graduation rates for all low-income students jumped from 38 percent to 87 percent.

• On Minnesota’s Iron Range, an ambitious local “Recharge the Range” initiative is underway, with action plans for better training the local talent, diversifying the economy, and taking full advantage of new and improved access to high-speed internet in rural areas.

• After listening carefully to working people and low-income rural people in every corner of the state, the Minnesota Asset Building Coalition and the Office on the Economic Status of Women have discovered that costs for car ownership and child care are among the chief impediments to prosperity for tens of thousands of families. Creative proposals to reduce those costs, driven by rural grass-roots input, already have made progress in the Legislature.

Infrastructure parity and reducing disparity

To be sure, regional tensions and competition for resources will always exist. But encouraging and developing a pan-regional statewide equity agenda is the better way forward. All of Minnesota needs a policy framework that builds the case for equity in two ways: more infrastructure investment in Greater Minnesota, along with new approaches to reducing inequalities and investing in the emerging racial diversity and disparities within rural regions.

The infrastructure investments — incentives for economic development projects, sufficiency of local government aid, and other public money for schools, colleges, cities and counties — are traditional Greater Minnesota demands that should remain a bedrock concern. New emphasis on universal high-speed internet or broadband capacity, as well as billions of dollars in future water quality needs, are now rising to the fore.

Here’s why these traditional needs for resource parity need to be coupled with much greater emphasis on equity — a term generally applied to policies and investments that reduce inequality and help lower- and middle-income households improve their educational and economic outcomes.

Maps created recently by the Minnesota Rural Education Association (MREA) show how prevalent rural poverty and low-income status has become. More than a third of the students in many rural districts now qualify for free-and-reduced lunch programs.

Rural school districts are thus now more similar on that score to Minneapolis and St. Paul and the inner circle of suburbs than rural districts are to the affluent suburban and exurban districts sandwiched between the core cities and the rest of the state.

This compelling fact leaps out: There are more children on the subsidized lunch program in the three rural congressional districts in southern, western and northern Minnesota (164,000 low-income children in the First, Seventh and Eighth) than there are in the two inner-urban congressional districts (131,000 low-income children in the Fourth and Fifth), according to the MREA.

Meanwhile, the national group Policy Link and Minnesota-based Center for Rural Policy and Development (CRPD) also have produced extensive mapping in recent years that show surges in Latino, African immigrant, African-American and Asian-American populations throughout Greater Minnesota.

Farsighted community leaders in rural Minnesota are optimistically framing these changes in diversity as a positive trend, as new human potential ready and waiting to be realized. They note that it represents growth at last and that diversity is bringing vibrancy and vitality to aging and declining counties and small towns.

Hopeful new frameworks are springing up. University of Minnesota researcher Ben Winchester’s encouraging work showing a “brain gain” in many rural communities is an example, and a new Minnesota Rural Counties Caucus is seizing on the theme with initiatives that encourage metro-to-rural migration. Often overlooked also is the ongoing and outstanding work of six regional Initiative Foundations, launched by the McKnight Foundation during the farm crisis of the 1980s, that continue to find ways to invest in human capital and diversify local economies.

Promising equity tools

Plenty of other constructive responses that fit under an equity agenda umbrella are underway in rural Minnesota. Here are some of the more promising initiatives:

• Mobility and small-business startups: The aforementioned Minnesota Asset Building Coalition has been pushing a “Getting to Work Bill” that funds nonprofit organizations offering low-interest auto loans, affordable car repairs or donated vehicles to low-income families. The MABC also is developing a Minnesota Emerging Entrepreneur Program that creates a revolving loan program for small business owners who are minorities, veterans, women, and people with disabilities or low incomes.

• Career pathways: In Brainerd and Alexandria, employers and social-service and higher-education leaders are finding faster ways to equip chronically underemployed folks with the credentials they need for skilled jobs right at home, in manufacturing, construction, agribusiness and health care. High underemployment and a severe shortage of skilled workers for local jobs are rural problems made for each other. A portion of the 2016 Legislature’s $35 million “equity package” already is being invested in these emerging rural “Career Pathway” models.

• Infrastructure basics: At a recent gathering in Austin of mayors, council members and city managers, the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities reviewed a sobering assessment of rural needs. These included: catching up on deep budget cuts more than a decade ago in local government aid, a long-term multibillion-dollar rehab of drinking water and wastewater systems, broadband and high-speed internet access, larger rather than smaller transportation improvements for highways and towns, a larger rather than smaller bonding bill for other public works projects, and funding for a Greater Minnesota Business Development Infrastructure Grant Program.

• Local education partnerships: Northfield Promise, mentioned earlier, is one of a growing number of rural communities coming together in highly organized cross-sector partnerships to lift youth outcomes from prenatal health to postsecondary completion. These partnerships are beginning to show results in Red Wing, St. Cloud, Austin and Itasca County, and some are beginning to receive state support and funding. Racial equity is an increasingly important theme in these partnerships.

A powerfully affirming statement on the importance of racial inclusiveness and equity was issued recently by Blandin Foundation President and CEO Kathy Annette, one of Minnesota’s most prominent American Indians and rural leaders.

Annette, taking note of this summer’s urban unrest over racial disparity, cited recent “Rural Pulse” polling by Blandin that showed about 70 percent of rural Minnesotans feel their community is “welcoming for people of all backgrounds.” The worrisome footnote is that this percentage has dropped by about 10 percentage points since 2013.

Calling for action on every dimension of rural vitality, Annette said “the most challenging of these dimensions to activate is that of inclusion, meaning that people consistently make the effort to see and seek differences in their community” and “tap the diverse backgrounds, experiences and skills of everyone for the benefit of the whole community.”

That philosophy of inclusive border-to-border investment in all our people and all our places has won out in Minnesota for most of our history. And we’ll all do better if we embrace and reaffirm equity as a statewide priority.

 

Dane Smith is the president of Growth and Justice, a public-policy organization that seeks to reduce economic and racial inequality in Minnesota.