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Disparities panel to target economic development

Jeff Hayden knows where they are. The exact zip codes escape him, but Hayden could locate the neighborhoods on a map, could take a pen and draw lines around block after block of multi-generational hardship.

Within these areas, Hayden said, some 60 percent of residents subsist on some form of government assistance. The second-term DFL senator, who represents part of South Minneapolis, does not serve these particular residents of the city’s north side; that responsibility falls to Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, the only other black member of the Minnesota Senate.

But Hayden knows these people are out there. Their plight, and the similarly depressed state of many of Minnesota’s minority residents, is the reason he and Champion have initiated the new Senate Select Committee on Disparities and Opportunities, which debuted this spring and held a second hearing Thursday morning.

As its name implies, the committee’s purview is extensive, and its mandate daunting. In short, Hayden hopes that its work will go some distance toward cutting the widening gulf between white Minnesotans and minorities in economic success, health, education and other topics.

Hayden said the committee owes its creation to reports produced by the state and by advocacy groups, virtually all of which have come to the conclusion that people of color are significantly at a disadvantage compared to their white counterparts in every measurable category.

“Wherever you looked,” Hayden said, “it became clear that minority folks aren’t doing as well — remotely as well — as everyone else around the state.”

Testifiers underline gap

As Thursday morning’s meeting got underway, a number of the panel’s members were either absent or tardy, perhaps a function of the hearing’s timing. (Hayden had hoped to hold schedule a second hearing in May, but found it impossible to squeeze in during the end-of-session blitz.) A number of notable elected officials did manage to make it, including Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, who was called on to testify about the city’s efforts to alleviate disparities.

As one of her first major policy initiatives, Hodges created a “Cradle to K Cabinet,” an advisory board tasked with looking into child preparedness for schools, starting with pregnant mothers and the prenatal stage through pre-kindergarten. While about 40 percent of the city is nonwhite, minority students make up nearly 70 percent of the Minneapolis school population; annual studies at various grade levels have found minorities, especially black students, lagging behind their white peers in literacy, test scores and graduation rates.

In an interview prior to the hearing, Hayden said he intends to focus the committee’s attention on economic development initially, arguing that enduring poverty is the root cause of numerous ills for black and Latino people — including the disparity in education achievement.

Peggy Flanagan, executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund and a co-chair of Hodges’ new cabinet, said she’s gratified that Hayden is eager to look at poverty and other outside factors contribute to underachievement.

“I think they’re linked,” said Flanagan, a former Minneapolis school board member. “You can’t just say it’s poverty, or it’s the education system – we have to look at both of them.”

Hayden said he wants to hold off on discussing education at the legislative level, describing the issue as “polarizing” compared to economic development, a subject on which he thinks the panel is more likely to find consensus.

The schools morass “can quickly turn into two well-funded sides throwing darts at each other,” Hayden said.

Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, another task force member, disagreed, saying the achievement gap in schools was contributing directly to the disparate outcomes seen in adulthood.

“To say that we’re taking [education] off the table — I think that makes a lot of the committee’s work a little shallow,” Petersen said.

Petersen supports greater incorporation of teacher evaluation and student assessments in judging the performance of educators and schools.  He has also criticized the hiring and firing practices of teachers unions, and argues that the current system disadvantages minority candidates. By comparison, Petersen said, the Teach for America nonprofit has minority teacher rates “five or six times greater” than seen in the traditional teacher system.

Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, also said she hoped the task force could address the issue of education, particularly as it pertains to job training and preparedness. Highlighting one example she also referred to during Thursday’s hearing, Torres Ray said more than 90 percent of current Department of Natural Resources (DNR) employees are white, and the vast majority are men. Many are now approaching retirement age, but minority candidates who could replace them, or fill other public employee positions, are few and far between.

“It doesn’t matter what kind of policy you put in place,” Torres Ray said. “Even if you had a mandate, you don’t have people with those credentials.”

Hodges: Local disparities large

Hodges, who made that topic a central focus of her inaugural address, was unsparing in her assessment of the problem facing the city. Racial disparities in the Twin Cities, especially Minneapolis, are among the worst seen anywhere in the United States — “in terms of unemployment, education, housing, incarceration, segregation, the whole nine yards,” Hodges testified. “We have some of the biggest gaps between white people and people of color in the country.”

Hodges went on to detail some of the ongoing work toward closing the deficit between white and non-white success, including grants intended to boost businesses that employ minorities. Along those lines, Hodges gave statistics on the city’s Business Technical Assistance Program (B-TAP), a business training and consulting service that she credited with creating 143 jobs and retaining 548 more during 2013.

Hayden said he planned to take an “all of the above” approach to increasing employment opportunities for non-whites, citing possible funding alterations at the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) or changes in state procurement policy as possible approaches. He also pointed to a recent move in New York, which devoted more than 20 percent of the state’s most recent capital investment bill to women- and minority-owned businesses.

Torres Ray said the metro area’s Latino population could stand to benefit from increased assistance in the licensing process, given that many find work in construction. When those workers and foremen find the bureaucratic and paperwork requirements “overwhelming,” Torres Ray said, they will often choose to find another job with lower pay, or simply continue construction business without a proper license.

Generating legislation

Hayden was not sure what form, or forms, the task force’s economic development strategy might take, but said he could envision a multi-faceted proposal similar to the Women’s Economic Security Act (WESA), which passed earlier this year. He added that he did not anticipate needing to produce any more data to sketch out a problem that is already so well-known, both inside the Capitol and out.

“We don’t want to just admire the problem anymore,” Hayden said. “We don’t want to produce a report — we want to produce pieces of legislation.”

Proposals to that effect already exist, at least in some form, thanks to the Council on Black Minnesotans, which earlier this year approved a legislative agenda for the first time in its 34 years of existence. The council’s recommendations included proposals to provide more equitable housing options and to launch development plans for areas with “surplus labor” capacity. Edward McDonald, the council’s executive director, said the legislative push was highly productive, even if none of its proposed bills were passed into law, and that the council came away with a “great cohort of legislative allies.”

McDonald has met with Hayden and Champion to discuss the task before their Senate panel, and was also in attendance during Thursday’s meeting. He said he hopes to incorporate some of the council’s ideas into the committee’s own package, and is broadly supportive of its mission.

“Anything that comes out of a committee like that should be productive,” McDonald said. “But we do want to throw our ideas into the hat.”

Hayden said the committee plans to hold multiple meetings over the course of the summer, with hopes to convene in off-site locations where minority citizens might gain greater access to the discussion. The panel would then meet on a couple more occasions later this year to refine its legislative plans heading into 2015.

Overall, he said, the establishment of the committee is a good first step, an acknowledgment that positive developments for the state often leave some members of society behind.

“I don’t know if we have had a sense of urgency on this, because overall we are doing so well,” Hayden said. He added: “This isn’t just a social justice issue, although it is that as well. This is a broader issue about moving our state forward, and I would hope that our colleagues will look at it that way, too.”

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