Prosperity for the few, hard times for the rest of us

AntiPovertySoldierIn the nearly two years that I have had the privilege of contributing this column to the MSR, a number of recurring themes have been addressed, including a pair of refrains that seem to emerge more often than any other.

One of these themes is the rampant disparity that exists in Minnesota between its White citizens and citizens of color, particularly African Americans. This level of inequity was highlighted in a 24/7 Wall Street report from earlier this year that ranked Minnesota as the second-worst state for Blacks to live.

The other most ubiquitous topic has been the expanding wealth and income gaps that plague not only the United States, but the entire globe. Recently, Oxfam International noted that the richest one percent of all Americans had accumulated more than 95 percent of all wealth generated since the end of the Great Recession in mid-2009. Likewise, the New York Times reported that during 2012, the top 10 percent of American workers took home well over one-half of America’s total income, which was “highest proportion recorded in a century of government record keeping.”

In the midst of these repeated themes has been Minnesota’s ever-present status as one of the best states in America, if not the best, for its overall quality of life. In spite of the mounting disparities along racial lines, Minnesota on the whole consistently performs high in a myriad of indicators including educational attainment, employment, median income, access to health care, and affordable housing among others.

However, a rather discerning study written by Tom Legg and Ngoc (Jenny) Nguyen of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management sheds additional light on some of the realities of inequality across the state. Published by the St. Paul nonprofit Growth & Justice, Legg and Nguyen’s report, titled “Widening Inequality in Minnesota: A County-by-County Analysis,” suggests that the state’s growing inequality has not yet been fully understood.

In his foreword to the report, Growth & Justice President Dane Smith writes that the authors challenge “the notion that the inequality divide in Minnesota is essentially between the Twin Cities metropolitan area and Greater Minnesota. Rather, the inequality divide is better understood as a chasm between a relatively prosperous suburban and exurban ring, and the spaces within and outside that ring.”

There are a number of implications to consider in analyzing this study. Although Legg and Nguyen don’t discuss the issue of race in great detail, the data they present does lend itself to the narrative regarding racial disparities, particularly in the context of the Twin Cities central core. For example, Ramsey County is the seventh poorest county (out of 87 counties) in the state and is fourth highest in terms of overall inequality. And while Hennepin County fares better in terms of its poverty rate due to its affluent suburbs, it still ranks first among 87 Minnesota counties in overall economic inequality.

The study also points out in alarming detail how much the counties that make up Greater Minnesota have struggled in recent years. One of the more remarkable statistics Legg and Nguyen reveal is that from 2010 to 2012, the first three years following the great recession, Minnesota’s median income grew by more than 12 percent. This has helped secure Minnesota’s place as the state with the seventh-highest median income in the nation.

Yet during this same three-year period, exactly two-thirds of Minnesota counties (58) experienced a decrease in median household income. This gives further credence to notion that the prosperity within the Twin Cities suburbs is significantly skewing the data in this state and that far too many Minnesotans, regardless of race, are suffering through extreme economic insecurity.


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.