How can our state be so good, yet so bad?


It’s the Minnesota Paradox. We need to solve that paradox, to ensure the prosperity of our state and a high quality of life for all of our residents. Minnesota has steadily grown in population since the mid-20th century; projections show continued steady growth for at least the next few decades. How those residents will fare, however, depends on critical choices we must make now.

The good part

Minnesota ranks high overall on many important measures of quality of life.

The American College of Sports Medicine, puts us in first place for overall health. CNN Money identifies several of our Twin Cities area’s municipalities among the best 20 places to live in the United States. Prevention Magazine rated the Twin Cities the 3rd “happiest, healthiest” place in the United States. America’s Health Rankings place Minnesota fifth among the 50 states for overall health.

Among the 25 largest metropolitan areas, the MSP metro region ranks “numero uno” on the proportion of adults who work, fourth on the proportion of adults with a bachelor’s degree, and fifth on median household income. So, we beat out places like Seattle, New York City, Miami, Phoenix, Philadelphia, with our better employment, education, and income.

Based on these numbers, the Land of 10,000 Lakes looks very, very good.

So, what’s the bad?

As I told a full auditorium at the Minnesota Policy conference last Wednesday, these overall numbers mask severe problems.

Before considering those problems, note as context two important features of the state’s current growth. First, the population is dramatically aging – yes, the good old baby boomers pig-in-a-python are progressing into their 60s and beyond. That has positive implications – more people living longer, healthier lives and contributing in various ways to their communities. It also has negative implications – more people with chronic health conditions requiring care for longer periods of time, for example.

Second, our state’s residents have greatly diversified over the past 50 years and will continue diversifying into the future. For instance, in 1960, our entire state had only about 42,000 persons of color; by 2010, that number had increased to about 900,000. In the Twin Cities region, during the first 10 years of this century, residents of color increased by more than 200,000, while white residents actually decreased by several thousand.

Keeping that context in mind, problems become apparent when we look below the top line “Minnesota high ranking” numbers. So, consider the proportion of adults working: Minnesota overall ranks 4th. Yet for persons of color, we rank 22nd, resulting in one of the largest employment gaps between whites and persons of color in the nation, putting us 46th out of 50 states.

Or consider the poverty rate. We rank number 11 among the 50 states. However, for persons of color, we rank 30th; and for the gap between white people and persons of color, we fall near the bottom, at 44th place.

Minnesota sits among the worst five states in the nation for on-time high school graduation for Black, American Indian, and Hispanic young people.

Differences between white residents and residents of color begin early, and they persist over time. You can see them in 3rd grade reading, for example. (See Minnesota Compass.) Some of it relates to income and, as a study suggested this year, results from a “language gap” starting as early as 18 months of age.

Do these disparities matter? Yes, for individuals, and yes, for our communities in Minnesota.

The disparities noted above affect individuals’ health. Some racial and ethnic groups have a greater chance of developing chronic diseases; members of some groups die much earlier than other groups. For example, an African-American in the Twin Cities will likely die 7 years earlier than a white person and 9 years earlier than an Asian person. I don’t know about you, but losing seven to nine years of my life sounds like a big deal; it means something.

For our communities, we risk the debilitation of our rising stars. The younger generation consists increasingly of persons of color. We rely on them to assume positions of community leadership and business leadership, to shape community institutions, and to successfully rear children. How will they sustain Minnesota’s communities without adequate education, health, and other resources? How will our communities support our aging residents if the supply of people in their working ages diminishes not only in quantity, but also in quality? The demographics portend declines in both. However, we can do a lot, if we put our minds to it, to change the trends.

How should we take action?

How to boost Minnesota to the top constitutes a topic more extensive than just this one essay can cover. For sure, the existence of such notable racial disparities suggests a need to eliminate racism. However, it’s overly simplistic to consider the elimination of racism a cure-all. It’s necessary, but not sufficient.

In addition, we will need to identify strategic points of intervention – some short term, to meet immediate needs – others long term, to prevent future problems from occurring. For example, long-term strategies to sustain affordable housing must receive our attention alongside short-term strategies to provide shelter to currently homeless and marginally-housed people. We must create long-term strategies to upgrade the math and science skills of our young people at the same time that we take steps to attract and retain professionals already trained in these skills.

We will need to work “upstream”, focusing on negative social and economic features of our communities which take a while to change. We will need to break out of our common ways of thinking – to recognize, for example, that tax policies can affect health and that early childhood education can influence economic development. Partnerships including business, nonprofits, and government will need to form and act in new ways.

Current demography need not inexorably shape our destiny. I look forward to taking up the challenge to think in new ways and partner in new ways, to make our communities truly number one in all their dimensions, not in just whatever first meets the eye!