By Clarence Hightower, Ph.D.
The Anti-Poverty Soldier
ST. PAUL, Minn. (Aug. 1, 2016) — One of the best sources for socioeconomic and health related data is the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation’s Minnesota Compass. This online resource provides timely and comprehensive statistics in more than a dozen critical areas including employment, health, education, children and youth, housing, public safety, transportation, immigration, civic participation, and racial and ethnic disparities. For each of these categories, Minnesota Compass highlights key measures and discusses the latest research, emerging trends, and expert analysis.
Toward the end of 2015, Minnesota Compass Project Director Dr. Craig Helmstetter, published a thorough and insightful online article titled “Six things you should know about poverty in Minnesota: Myth-busters edition.” Following the release of the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest American Community Survey, Helmstetter set out to debunk a number of myths that have persisted during Minnesota’s and the nation’s recovery from the Great Recession of 2007-2009.
I would like to look at two of the myths that Helmstetter cites in his research, the first of which is that “Minnesota’s has fully recovered” since the end of the recession. He points out that the state has “recovered the number of jobs lost,” however there are other indicators that remain worse than pre-recession levels. For example, near the end of 2015 Minnesota’s poverty rate was still a full two percent higher than it was at the end of 2007. Furthermore, there are approximately 100,000 more Minnesotans living in poverty than there were prior to the recession.
In regard to this myth, Helmstetter also notes that the labor force participation rate and median household income are still slightly less than they were in 2007. He concludes by reminding us that while Minnesota has not fully recovered, it has outpaced most of the nation in returning to pre-recession conditions. One thing that I wish to add to this discussion revolves around the issue of employment. Although the state’s unemployment rate is well below the national average, it doesn’t account for those who have exhausted their unemployment benefits or those who have quit looking for work. For example, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis reports that more than seven millions Americans have given up on their job search as they cannot find living-wage or middle income jobs.
A second myth that Helmstetter tackles is the belief that while Minnesota suffers from racial disparities, “they are not nearly as bad as elsewhere in the nation.” He demonstrates that Minnesota’s racial disparities are, in fact, among the worst in America. Helmstetter refers to what is now called “The Minnesota Paradox” and the increasing number of media outlets who have begun to examine the cultural inconsistencies in this state. Many have queried how a state whose quality of living index reliably ranks near the top of all 50 states, can have populations of color that continue to fare far worse than their peers in other states. In addressing this question, Dr. Paul Mattessich, Executive Director of Wilder Research, suggests that we know some of the reasons for this issue but “definitely not all.” I would concur with that assessment. Still, I think we must understand one of the reasons even if it remains difficult to discuss.
In 2014, the Minnesota Department of Health’s report to the Legislature cited “structural racism” as at least part of the reason that the state has some of the worst health-related racial disparities in the nation. In considering this disparities, Commissioner of Health, Dr. Ed Ehlinger, told MPR News, “That’s fundamentally unfair. Your health shouldn’t be dependent on your income, your educational status, or your skin color, or your zip code.”
The Department of Health’s report didn’t mince words when it came to the subject of structural racism, which was viewed as a bold stance by many. In describing this issue the report suggests that while structural racism may or may not be deliberate, “some policies routinely provide advantages to white people while producing chronic disadvantages for people of color.”
So whether deliberate or not, it is imperative that we continue to identify, call out, and root out structural racism wherever it exists.
Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104.