For more than a year, communities have met as part of the Thriving by Design Network, organized by Growth & Justice and OneMN.org, to help inform statewide public policy. Results of those conversations are now rolling out in a series of research reports that make up the Minnesota Equity Blueprint, described as “a comprehensive, non- partisan, long-term plan for shared prosperity in a healthier environment.” The reports aim to show the “interconnectedness of the state’s people” as well as the “challenges that cloud our future.”

One participant at a discussion in Granite Falls/Upper Sioux Community put it this way: “I want to better understand — how do we move beyond left versus right?”

The first section of the Blueprint was published in April 2019 and is focused on Human Capital. Future sections focus on Economic Development, Infrastructure, Climate Action & Natural Resources, and Democracy & Fiscal Sustainability. The full report is expected to be complete in early 2020.


Demographic Realities

According to census data, over the last 50 years, Minnesotans of color have grown from 2 percent to 20 percent of the state’s total population. The 10 counties with the highest gains in racial diversity are in Greater Minnesota, particularly in southwestern and central Minnesota. Between 2014 and 2016, Minnesota’s crucial growth in labor force was almost entirely dependent on communities of color and immigrants. Yet, national data from 2017 shows that Minnesota has the 11th highest poverty rate among African Americans (28 percent) and the 9th highest poverty rate among Native Americans (29 percent). A family of four is living in poverty, by 2017 census standards, if the annual income is below $24,858; an MIT Living Wage Calculator indicates the average family of four needs pre-tax income of $68,948 to have an adequate standard of living.

According to the 2017 American Community Survey, Minnesota was tied with New Hampshire as having the nation’s highest rate of people with high school diplomas or higher (93.1 percent). However, when looking closer at the data, divided by people of color, the state ranks 48th for African-Americans who graduate from high school, and is tied for 37th in percentage of Hispanic students who earn diplomas.

The Equity Blueprint report concludes: “Minnesotans of color, women, and people with disabilities have been denied full and equal access to opportunity, resulting in highly disparate rates of educational attainment, employment, health outcomes, incarceration, and homelessness.” This is not only costing taxpayers, but has “been a significant limiting factor on the state’s economy.”


Geographic Disparities

From taconite processing in the north, to bio-medical advances at the Mayo Clinic in the southeast, the state has historically invested in its diverse regions and biomes. However, with population shifts from rural to urban and suburban areas, income inequality has grown.

Says the Equity Blueprint report: “State policymakers have been under-responsive to the economic needs and potential of areas outside the cities by failing to adequately invest in human capital development and needed business infrastructure (such as roads, childcare, and affordable housing) outside the Twin Cities 7-County Metro area. Like the impact of racial disparities, regional disparities in public investment have constrained the entire state’s economic engine.”



Solutions

The report offers examples of initiatives that are having an impact. For example, several state groups have worked together on the Heading Home Minnesota program, which has reduced the numbers of veterans experiencing homelessness.

More than 15 years ago, community leaders and residents in Northfield teamed to improve the college enrollment rates of its people of color — particularly from its growing Latinx population — in a program called TORCH (Tackling Obstacles and Raising College Hopes). They offered social support services for every student, including early childhood development, individual tutoring and mentoring, and navigation through early college credit programs. In 2017, 97 percent of TORCH participants graduated on time, and 90 percent of graduating seniors applied to college.

A similar collaboration in southwestern Minnesota, called Grow Our Own, is aimed at closing opportunity gaps for youth. One in six children in the region live in poverty. The effort is led by Southwest Initiative Foundation, whose president, Diana Anderson, explained: “The vitality of our region and the strength of our rural economy depends on everyone being able to contribute, and it starts before birth. We need to ensure ALL our kids — our indigenous children, our seventh-generation immigrant children, and our first- generation immigrant children — get the best possible start.” In another unique program, police officers in about 20 Minnesota departments have the option to offer $50 coupons to help car owners pay for auto repairs, instead of writing tickets after stopping them for minor equipment problems.

This Lights On program, believed to be the first of its kind in the country, is sponsored by the non-profit Microgrants.

Central Minnesota’s Morrison County has tackled the opioid epidemic by spending money on basic public health measures: limiting prescription refills, increasing access to addiction medications, and putting drug users in treatment programs instead of jail. Obtaining painkillers used to be the top reason for emergency room visits. Within six months, it was not even among the top 20 reasons.

One woman who was a former addict told a Buzzfeed reporter, “My hometown of 8,000 people was one place in the state that [did something about it]. Think of all the people like me who don’t have that hometown.’’

Inspired by this county effort, the Minnesota Department of Health launched an Opioid Prevention Pilot Project in seven other communities, including Alexandria, Redwood Falls, Montevideo, Hibbing, Mora, Fergus Falls, and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. These communities are projected to cut pill use by 765,000 pills per year and authorize 21 new providers of medication-assisted treatment.