As Minnesotans look toward the August primary and fall general elections, we must critically consider who and what we are becoming.
How do we envision the next Minnesota? How will we combine the hopes, dreams and goals of those who live in our most urban communities, those who see themselves as suburbanites, those who reside in midsize cities (what planners call regional centers) and, finally, those who live where I grew up, in rural Minnesota?
Without a shared commitment to success for one Minnesota and for each and every Minnesotan, our state risks fracturing and becoming what we do not want: a community with a single government but divided and estranged in every other way, economically, socially, politically.
We are already on the path to being a divided state. An analysis of political representation in the Legislature is stunning in the stark separation of areas represented by each of the leading political parties. The same is true of a macroeconomic analysis of the state. One finds economic vitality in much of the urban area and in many of the regional centers. Unemployment rates are at record lows, business expansions are the norm, housing markets are hot and construction projects are underway on every third block in downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul.
New college graduates are finding job opportunities calling even when they might have preferred a few months off after graduation. Things seem to be going pretty well for many of us. But (there is always a but) …
We need to take a closer look — or perhaps I mean a more distant look. For me, driving home to where I grew up stirs deeply mixed feelings these days. I love rural Minnesota, but it’s sad to see many of our smallest towns struggling to stay relevant. Once-vibrant main streets have been reduced to secondhand stores, bars and small cafes. Rural schools put children on buses for hours each day as many counties have only one, two or three consolidated school districts where there used to be six or seven.
The average age of the residents in these towns is 10 to 15 years older than in large cities and suburbs. And, most unfortunately, rural residents spend far too much time thinking about the past, where they have been and what they have lost, rather than focusing on the future, where they are going and what new opportunities they are pursuing.
My hope is that this election season will bring a discussion among citizens and candidates about a new “Social Contract for Rural Minnesota.” It would be a vision of our state that honors the values and respects the contributions of each region of Minnesota and each and every person who lives there. It would mean a recognition among all candidates that partnering and collaborating with one another is the only way to brighten the prospects for all Minnesota.
A new Social Contract for Rural Minnesota must embrace six key elements: education, health care, housing, transportation, public infrastructure and economic development.
Education: Discussion about a new social contract for education doesn’t begin with the question of needing more or less funding. It begins by seeing that education must encompass everything from preschool through adult education. We must develop new tools and strategies for educating children in sparsely populated areas. The big-box model may not be the answer in every situation. Public schools will need to partner with neighboring districts, the two university systems, and communities to ensure that all learners, young or old, can reach their potential. Educators at all levels must focus on outcomes, not on structure and process.
Health care: A shortage of physicians, dentists and mental health professionals afflicts much of rural Minnesota. In many places, it is difficult to find qualified emergency medical staff with the skills to provide triage and lifesaving support for those in crisis. We must ensure that the elderly receive quality care in assisted-living and nursing facilities. Quality health care can be achieved through the use of mobile health clinics and by housing county social service and public health staff members in places other than courthouses. We can mandate an aggressive use of nurse practitioners and physicians’ assistants.
What may be the most important of all? Rural Minnesota must provide transportation services for the elderly to get from their homes to care providers.
Housing: The housing stock is falling apart in our most rural communities. This should surprise no one. When housing is old, with low values, it is a difficult decision to invest and improve a home. One knows there will be little return on that investment. Rural communities, with state and federal partnerships, must be willing to provide assistance to residents to meet their housing needs. A new Social Contract for Rural Minnesota must ensure as fully as possible that the quality of housing is both maintained and improved. When necessary, dilapidated buildings need to be removed, but the ultimate goal must be to improve housing opportunities.
Transportation: The two primary functions of a transportation system are to move goods to market and people to jobs. Both must be supported by a statewide partnership willing to invest in better roads and bridges with greater capacities, and transit of all types, rail and more. The partisan squabbles over funding must end. Rural and urban leaders, working jointly to meet these goals, must understand that the state’s prosperity depends on meeting the transportation and transit needs of all Minnesota.
Public infrastructure: In rural Minnesota, public infrastructure is in trouble. Too many communities struggle to find the resources to maintain primary public services of water and sewer. Sadly, Minnesotans need to face the reality that in many of our smallest communities, it is no longer reasonable to maintain water and sewer systems that were built when communities expected to be two or three times more populous than they are. We must ask each and every city and county leader to evaluate where their communities are, and where they are going. Once we understand that, the real work will begin to fund and build right-sized public works systems.
Economic development: Our state can chase the Amazons of the world in the hopes of hitting the grand slam. But we will need to accept a lot of strikeouts. And with few exceptions, home runs are not an option for rural Minnesota. In rural Minnesota, we must play small ball, hitting away from the shift and sometimes sending a bunt down the third-base line. When we score, it may be one job at a time. In rural Minnesota, an increase of one, two or three jobs makes a difference.
The six elements of a new Social Contract for Rural Minnesota are pretty basic objectives for success in every community, rural or urban. But for rural Minnesota to succeed, it will have to launch a little “populist” movement. Rural leaders must come together and begin the conversation, explore opportunities and sketch a path to success. They need to make a little noise.
Jim Mulder is retired executive director of the Association of Minnesota Counties, an adjunct professor at the University of St. Thomas and a policy fellow at Growth & Justice.