Unemployment rate among blacks highlights continuing racial disparities in Minnesota

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Minnesota’s black unemployment rate was a shocking 27 percent in the third quarter of 2011 – by far the highest level in the 25 states examined in a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). The study, No Relief in 2012 From High Unemployment for African Americans and Latinos, focused on states where there was a sufficient sample size to calculate estimates for racial subgroups. Minnesota was one of only five states where black unemployment topped 20 percent. In contrast, Minnesota’s white unemployment rate was just six percent, ranking 36th lowest in the nation.

The data is alarming, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise. We have previously noted high levels of racial disparities in unemployment in the Twin Cities. Last year, another EPI report showed the Twin Cities ranked second worst among 29 large metropolitan areas in black-white unemployment disparities in 2010, with black unemployment more than triple the rate for whites.

As the state slowly emerges from the recession and overall unemployment rates continue to fall, we cannot afford to overlook the reality that unemployment may continue to remain disturbingly high among people of color. EPI projects unemployment for blacks in Minnesota will remain at 25 percent through the fourth quarter of 2012.

Minnesota’s troubling racial disparities are not limited to unemployment. In the past, we have highlighted disparities in poverty and income, assets and health outcomes, issues that merit state attention. Strong education, job training and health care programs can help close those gaps.

The Organizing Apprenticeship Project (OAP) recently released its 2011 Minnesota Legislative Report Card on Racial Equity, which highlights the importance of state policy choices that can “build an equitable state, one where all people have genuine access to the opportunities that could make Minnesota great.” The report evaluates steps forward and steps backwards.

For instance, state leaders took the positive step of doubling state funding for the five Opportunities Industrialization Centers in Minnesota that provide job training programs targeted to some of the state’s poorest communities of color.

On the other hand, lawmakers failed to move forward on implementing the federal Affordable Care Act by setting up a Minnesota-designed health insurance exchange. The exchange is a central element of health care reform and will help low- and moderate-income families access more affordable health insurance. Since people of color are more likely to be living in poverty and more likely to be uninsured, a well-designed exchange could help reduce health disparities by improving access to health care.

OAP also highlighted the impact of tax choices made in 2011, such as the 13 percent cut to the Renters’ Credit, a property tax refund for about 300,000 low- and moderate-income Minnesota households. This cut disproportionately hurts both low-income people and people of color, who are more likely to rent.

The report points to significant and persistent racial disparities in poverty, education, employment and other key areas. We cannot afford to ignore them, or the impact they will have on the state’s future economic and social well-being. People of color are 16 percent of Minnesota’s population today, and will grow to 25 percent by 2035. In the Twin Cities metro area, one in three residents will be a person of color by 2035. We must be working to reverse disparities if we want to ensure that all Minnesotans are prepared to play an essential role in the community as workers, consumers and contributors to cultural vitality. Minnesota’s future success depends on it.