A recent article in the Atlantic magazine — “The Miracle of Minneapolis,” by Derek Thompson — brought out the anticipated reactions. For the “I love Minnesota” folks, the article highlighted for their friends and family around the country why this cold-and-far-from-the-oceans-or-mountains place is home. For the “I love Minnesota, but” crowd, it was another opportunity to shake their heads in disbelief because it completely omitted, among other things, our great racial disparities gap. And many people, including Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, came to fill the void.
The core of what Thompson attributes to this regional success is what’s known as “tax base sharing,” or the fiscal disparities program. Conceived by the Citizens League and enacted in 1971 with bipartisan support, the program is an innovative mechanism that allows the Minneapolis-St. Paul region to pool and share a portion of the tax capacity produced by communities with the greatest commercial tax capacity growth.
Rather than encouraging the pingpong game of luring businesses from one community to the next based on local incentives, the program established the broad incentive that every community would share in the region’s growth no matter where it occurred, making it easier for communities to develop without competing with one another for business tax base.
People may think the miracle is the mechanism itself — the fiscal disparities program — but the true miracle was really the imagination and capacity of the people who came together to govern for the common good and solve big problems. As we justifiably criticize the article for what it omitted, we also must have the imagination today to come together to tackle racial disparities with the same purposefulness, bipartisan support and with the same success in outcomes.
So how is it possible that we can be heralded by the Atlantic as being a leader in wealth creation and housing affordability and do horribly on almost every measure of racial disparities?
White people make up the vast majority of our state. We also know most Minnesotans do not leave and — if they do — they return when they start families. Thompson underscores this point by writing that “of the 25 largest American cities, only one had a lower rate of outflow than Minneapolis” and that “[i]t’s really hard to get people to move to Minneapolis, and it’s impossible to get them to leave.” We also know that Minnesota has a highly educated population and that we’re usually at the top for having the highest ACT or SAT test scores in the nation.
Some of these smart and business-savvy leaders formed some of the biggest companies in the nation from 3M to General Mills, and they’re still here. As stated in the article, Minneapolis-St. Paul is home to 19 Fortune 500 companies. Every one of these companies has an affiliated foundation or corporate giving program, meaning that they reinvest back into their (and our) home communities. These corporate leaders, along with private and family foundations, support some of the strongest social services and a long list of nonprofits, which serve the spectrum of people from artists to preschoolers to immigrants.
How could this success, alongside such disparities, “add up”?
A majority population of highly educated white people who do not leave + newcomers and growing communities that seek the same things as the majority population + American Indian and African-American communities that have been historically marginalized = a deep racial disparities gap.
These disparities are perhaps an unintended, but unacceptable, byproduct of our success. OK, but what do we do?
We need to apply this same civic imagination and capacity to the issue of racial disparities, which will be one of our primary barriers to future wealth creation. Current challenges around aging and workforce will only be exacerbated by this imbalance. Racial disparities demand more than benign neglect or rhetorical outrage. We have to develop a range of solution strategies that will work at the scale this issue demands.
First, we need to reimagine governance and each of our roles in it so that it includes every stakeholder as a citizen problem-solver in his or her communities, workplaces and schools. We especially need those most affected by the problem — communities of color — at the table. This isn’t just the job of the government or elected officials; all of us have opportunities to address disparities. And if people directly impacted by the disparities aren’t helping to define and solve the problem, we’ll come up with bad ideas that don’t work.
There is not only one solution needed; we need many innovative policy solutions. At the Citizens League, we’ve begun to focus on higher education through the lens of affordability and completion, and around three key areas that will help all students, but especially those from underserved communities. They include:
1. More access to dual-enrollment programs so students can get a head start on their postsecondary education, whatever that might be
2. Making it easier for students to transfer between postsecondary institutions — especially critical to students in Greater Minnesota, and
3. Lifting up career and technical education programs so that we can train a new generation of skilled workers to meet current and future workforce needs.
This won’t be sufficient, but it’s a big start.
Addressing racial disparities in our successful region is a critical priority. Let’s make the next “miracle” a reality by developing a new civic imagination and building the capacity that will close the racial disparities gap because our policies and our politics made it possible. We’ve done this before. Let’s do it again.
Sean Kershaw is executive director of the Citizens League. Juventino Meza is a board member.