Twice in recent months the Star Tribune has published front-page stories about Minnesota corporate foundations and nonprofit institutions shifting the focus of their community work to “equity.”
The word is relatively new in public discourse and becoming more prevalent, for good reason. Equity is increasingly understood as a desired condition that results from fixing the things that cause all our costly and interrelated inequalities: racial, economic, regional and environmental.
Equity is a more appealing word than “equality” or “charity,” perhaps because of its strong business sense, and the connotation of building assets and a larger ownership share for those of us who historically have been excluded or left behind. Googling the word these days still links you mostly to the world of investing and corporate finance.
A hardheaded underlying motivation behind this new striving for equity is the realization that widening inequalities are simply not good for business or communities. That truth came through strongly in a Target Foundation statement last fall about its new equity focus, expressed as a concern that “as the demographics of our region continue to shift, the costs of inequality will continue to grow.”
A second and equally important growing concern swirls around climate change as a disruptive, dis-equalizing and destructive force. There, too, the Minnesota business community is awakening to the challenge. Nine major companies with headquarters or operations in Minnesota urged state lawmakers last year to address climate change as part of final policy and spending negotiations at the Capitol. The statement said: “We support decarbonization strategies because they will help us ensure prolonged profitability, reduce risk, safeguard the resilience of our supply chains and allow us to better meet the growing demands of our customers and investors.” Polling shows gradually rising consensus, in rural regions as well as metro regions, in favor of climate action.
Meanwhile, we are daily bombarded with corroborating news about the effects of inequalities and climate change, at a time when the economy supposedly has never been better. In the headlines: stubborn racial disparities in education attainment and economic condition, rising rates of impaired water in our precious lakes and streams, an uptick in crime rates, rural stagnation and climate-related declines in farm income, addiction tragedies in every neighborhood of the state, and affordability crises for health care, housing, child care and higher education.
All these headlines contradict the narrative of economic growth, precisely because that growth is so unequally shared. Although average income is increasing, in the same way it does when Jeff Bezos walks into a room, research continues to show that more than a fourth of Minnesotans are economically insecure, with little or no savings and a car breakdown or health crisis away from big trouble.
So what do we do?
For starters, take a long look at the Minnesota Equity Blueprint, a 170-page guidebook with a detailed set of 140 recommendations for the consideration of all Minnesotans, local community organizations, business and nonprofit leaders, and, of course, state and local policymakers. The Blueprint will be rolled out at events starting Feb. 27, capping an 18-month process that involved more than 300 participants meeting in gatherings across the state and with input from dozens of nonpartisan community organizations.
As one of the Blueprint’s editors and as a former journalist who has been observing public policy debate in Minnesota for more than 40 years, I believe it is one of the most comprehensive, business-minded and constructive policy frameworks our state has seen in recent decades. It also is one of the more ambitious attempts to fully integrate policy and local practice around both equity and environmental action. It inflects strongly on racial and economic inequality and integrates that predicament with rural distress and regional disparities.
Among the proffered solutions, arranged in four chapters, are the following:
• Human capital: Improve the economic security of households by sustaining safety-net investments and increasing pay and benefits for those at the bottom, providing more incentive to work and to build assets. Invest more before K and after 12, with early childhood enrichment for families most in need, and career pathway models that equip students with skills and postsecondary credentials for the jobs most in demand. Curtail discriminatory practices in law enforcement and compounding of collateral consequences for legal infractions, and disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline that prevents thousands of Minnesotans from participating fully in the workforce and economy. Greatly increase teachers and staff of color in schools. Provide affordable high-quality health coverage for every Minnesotans, beginning with expanded public option through MinnesotaCare.
• Economic development: Encourage entrepreneurial and small-business development for rural regions and communities of color by eliminating regulatory burdens and increasing access to capital. Ensure universal access to affordable high-quality child care. Develop markets for new agricultural products. Increase state bonding bill investment in arts and cultural amenities, particularly in rural regions and in communities of color. Welcome immigrants to alleviate our workforce shortage and allow undocumented workers to obtain driver’s licenses.
• Infrastructure: Enact a major new funding package for improving highways and bridges, transit and mobility, and biking and walking options. Realign regulatory and tax structures to stimulate the construction and preservation of affordable housing. Increase rural broadband investment to ensure universal access to high-speed internet.
• Environmental resilience: Set bold new goals and action plans to dramatically reduce greenhouse-gas emission, through converting to renewables in the power grid, through electrification of vehicular transportation, and through more-sustainable agriculture and land use that minimizes agricultural pollution and that sequesters carbon. Move toward aggressive cleanup of surface water now classified as “impaired.” Incentivize movement toward zero-waste goals. Respect sovereign rights of Native Americans and expand protections of both native lands and waters and wilderness areas.
Reaching agreement on the particulars of these solutions will not come easily and may take many years. The authors of the Blueprint are not dogmatic about its solutions. It is intended as a draft and a living document, and over time we may discover that some solutions may not work, while no doubt many sound ideas are missing.
But as the new decade begins and the 2020 legislative session convenes, the Blueprint serves as a place where the full range of options can be considered. And we can take heart that the private, public and nonprofit sectors in Minnesota are at least reaching consensus on these two essential challenges: inequalities and environmental degradation. Building a more inclusive society and a healthier environment will be the most important tasks of our time.
Dane Smith is senior policy fellow and president emeritus of Growth & Justice, a research and advocacy organization that seeks a more equitable and environmentally sustainable economy for Minnesota. The Minnesota Equity Blueprint can be downloaded from the Growth & Justice website starting Feb. 27 at growthandjustice.org