8 ways to help close Minnesota’s wealth gap

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If we make the less fortunate a priority, we can improve the quality of life for all. 

By Don Samuels and Joe Selvaggio NOVEMBER 16, 2017 — 6:20PM

Upon reading the amazing book “Amazing MN” by Lee Lynch, we found ourselves smug and proud of our adoptive state, Minnesota. Fact after fact, picture after picture, evoked “Wow, we’re lucky to live here.”

Minnesota has invested wisely in literacy and education, recreational sites, arts, sports teams and venues, quality of life institutions, businesses, health, and good-government traditions.  But then (there’s always a “but”), in Joe’s native Chicago, a ride on the “L” tells a different story. It’s the tale of boarded-up neighborhoods, crime-infested streets, lack of viable businesses. One wonders if some of the money invested in the Lake Michigan waterfront area (museums, sports stadiums, parks) had been invested in these inner-city neighborhoods, would we have less suffering and maybe even a more beautiful downtown? Hard to know for sure, but we have always believed that a wise investment in the less fortunate, in the form of skills training and education, would make all of us wealthier — with a better quality of life.

We began looking in “Amazing MN” for statistics and pictures about the less fortunate in Minnesota — statistics showing that we had a smaller “achievement gap.” Unfortunately, we found the opposite. According to the Pew Research Center, the wealth gap between white and black Minnesotans stands at its highest level since 1989. Minnesota ranks dead last with the highest median household income gap in the nation.

Most recent numbers rank Minnesota 48th for blacks, 46th for Asians and 45th for Hispanics. Forty-five percent of Native Americans in the Twin Cities live in poverty. A Metropolitan Council study showed that if the Twin Cities were to eliminate disparities, there would be 124,000 more people with jobs and 274,000 fewer people in poverty.  

Aristotle said, “To spend money is easy, but to spend it wisely is very difficult.” Thus, we are not advocating that we  should have  cut the budget 10 percent for the $1.2 billion Minnesota Vikings stadium or the multimillion-dollar monster homes on Lake Minnetonka and should have given that to the poor. In fact, that could actually hurt the poor if it promotes dependency. The “have-nots” need to   earn their way to financial independence. It is our job to offer the hand up.  Here are a few ways we should debate how we could spend our money more wisely:

• Require that 30 percent of the work on government-subsidized developments in the Twin Cities, such as the Vikings stadium, go to minority contractors or workers. One of us (Don) had a hand in demanding that level of participation, as a condition of city support.

• Require that low-income families occupy 20 percent of the housing in subsidized developments. This, too, often happens, but let us increase the practice.

• Double our philanthropy to the 50 or so nonprofits in the Twin Cities (and similar nonprofits in greater Minnesota) that are helping to train low-income people to make them ready for jobs that are looking for workers.

• Invest more in training police officers dealing with racial issues and the mentally ill.

• Have all clergy members embrace the courageous intervention by Pope Francis. In his admonition to the Philippines, he discouraged multiple births among those without the resources to support children. In addition, bishops could promote contraceptives and family planning rather than forbid them.

• Have secular and religious authorities increase — rather than cut — funding for family planning.

• See the underachievers as a resource to develop rather than a problem to avoid.

• Ask our governors, mayors, legislators, business leaders and academics to debate these challenges.

Let’s be clear. We’re not advocating these changes in spending because there is a “moral imperative” (although there probably is). We’re advocating them because we think there is an enlightened self-interest in this line of action. We believe that in the long run, more people will have even more wealth to invest in big homes, big arts, big sports if we put the less fortunate to work. Work creates wealth, dignity and a quality of life for all citizens. Shooting all the benefits to those at the top of the financial pyramid spoils them and makes them smug — the accusation so many make about those at the bottom.

If we improve our priorities, then Lee Lynch, and all of us, will have an even more “Amazing MN” inclusive of all. END

Don Samuels is CEO and Joe Selvaggio is founder and board chair of local non-profit, Microgrants.