If one were to bravely declare that hard work and strong families are important ingredients in building prosperous communities, few would feel driven to disagree.

So it’s surprising how seldom these basic building blocks of well-being are candidly discussed in Minnesota’s earnest conversations about distressing economic disparities among this state’s racial groups.

Well, OK — maybe it’s not surprising. To probe group differences in work habits and family life is to risk seeming to disparage certain groups, blame them for their hardships and ignore the role of discrimination in perpetuating inequalities.

In fact, many social injustices, past and present, undermine family cohesion and inhibit employment. But whatever the causes, getting down to basics and seeing clearly what everyday realities are holding people back seems like it has to be part of any honest effort to help them move ahead.

A powerful new instrument for spotting realities has been provided this year by the Minnesota State Demographic Center. It’s a “chartbook” boldly titled “The Economic Status of Minnesotans,” and it bills itself as a “first-of-its-kind report.”

The chartbook (http://tinyurl.com/zzzlhdq) lives up to those ambitions by dissecting census data and sorting Minnesotans into no less than 17 distinct cultural groups.

This statistical surgery illuminates the dramatically different circumstances of populations that often are confusingly lumped together in broad ethnic groups. For example, the chartbook distinguishes between “Asian” populations — those from India and China, say — that are among the most affluent communities in Minnesota and the rather more challenged Hmong population of southeast Asian refugees.

Importantly, the report also isolates an “African-American” population of nonimmigrant black Minnesotans. This helps eliminate uncertainties about whether the special challenges of recent African immigrants, such as those from Somalia, may be skewing the overall economic statistics for Minnesota’s black community.

The particularly painful (and apparently worsening) income gap between black and white Minnesotans has, of course, been a central focus of the state’s concern over disparities.

State Demographer Susan Brower says some of the most striking data in the chartbook reflects the role of household composition in different communities. She calls it “one of the most important things when we’re thinking about economic well-being, especially for children.” Brower sees a powerful combination of forces at work in recent decades.

Wage growth has slowed, making it “really difficult to have only a single earner” in a household. Yet right alongside we’ve seen a trend toward “increasing births outside of marriage — and outside of partnership altogether.”

This potent convergence driving hardship in some communities has been too much “off our radar,” Brower says.

One way the chartbook detects this pattern is by measuring drastic differences in household sizes across communities.

The large number of single-parent homes in the black community has been well-documented. But the chartbook also indicates that fully 36 percent of all African-American households in Minnesota consist of individuals living alone. That is six times the rate for the Hmong in Minnesota and well more than twice the rate among those with a Mexican background.

Only 23 percent of African-American households contain four people or more — compared with 49 percent among Mexicans and 70 percent in the Hmong community.

Bigger households present economic challenges, of course, but they also contain more potential jobholders and other family members to help with child care — cutting costs and increasing the flexibility for earners to work various shifts.

The chartbook documents disparities in work patterns as well. Some 32 percent of African-Americans of working age (16-64) are outside the labor force — neither working nor seeking a job, for whatever reasons. That compares with 23 percent in the Mexican community and 17 percent among whites.

Among African-Americans seeking jobs, unemployment is almost twice as high as it is among Mexican or Hmong Minnesotans, and more than three times the white rate.

Almost certainly part of the issue here is a startlingly high incidence of disability among African-American Minnesotans. According to the chartbook, one or more disabilities affect 14 percent of African-Americans ages 18 to 44, and 31 percent of those aged 45 to 64. These rates are twice what is found in the Somali population and nearly three times the rates among Mexican and white Minnesotans. (The Hmong and Ojibwe communities also suffer severe disability rates.)

Such factors as these (and others) combine to produce what would seem an economically key, bottom-line characteristic — how many earners a typical household includes in various communities (an “earner” being defined as someone with any earned income in the past year).

The chartbook reports that 20 percent of nonelderly African-American households had no earners when the data was collected. This compares with 15 percent in the Somali community, 7 percent in the Hmong community and 3 percent in the Mexican community.

In both the African-American and Somali populations, 30 percent of households contained two or more earners — compared with 57 percent of Mexican households and 69 percent of Hmong households.

The effect of this type of disparity is notable. The chartbook reports that full-time Hmong workers, Mexican workers and African-American workers all earn substantially less in median pay than white workers do — a type of gap that gets much well-deserved attention. But it also turns out that median African-American workers earn substantially more than either their Hmong or Mexican counterparts.

Yet total median household incomes are strikingly higher in the Hmong and Mexican communities. In some significant part, that greater overall well-being results from there being more workers per household — the elementary economic benefit of family and work.

The complexities and sensitivities involved in facts like these, and in devising public policies to address them, are intimidating. But that’s just another way of saying that the Demographic Center and its chartbook — whose depths I’ve barely touched here — have deepened our understanding of the challenges Minnesota faces.


D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.