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James Behrenbrinker

Targeting racial economic disparities

Gov. Mark Dayton has always been relatively popular with Minnesota’s minority population. Last year, he crushed Republican opponent Jeff Johnson in urban districts with large black or Hispanic constituencies, often picking up more than three-quarters of the vote. As of August, Dayton enjoys a 56 percent approval rating from nonwhite Minnesotans, according to Public Policy Polling (PPP); that’s nearly 10 percent higher than Dayton’s approval from white Minnesotans.

In fact, when it comes to race issues, Dayton might be more popular among black Minnesotans than he is with himself. Dayton said as much in a Sunday interview on KMOJ radio station, explaining that he felt bad about his record on closing the racial disparities gap after nearly five years in office.

“I fault myself,” Dayton said. “I should’ve done more in my first term. I have most of my second term remaining, and I’m going to redouble my efforts. I’m going to be challenging others, businesses, government, and everywhere else.”

Those challenges will soon be more direct, as Dayton also used his radio appearance to announce two new positions within his administration. One job in the Office of Career and Business Opportunity will be a director’s position, answering directly to Dayton, while another new role creates a single-issue assistant commissioner within the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED).

The office will be dedicated to lessening income and employment disparities between whites and nonwhites, a widely acknowledged problem that has recently made headlines yet again. According to a U.S. Census Bureau study, black Minnesotans’ median income fell 14 percent from 2013 to 2014, when it hit $27,440. More than a third of the state’s blacks live in poverty, the same report found, more than three times the state’s overall poverty rate of 11 percent.

The Dayton administration was far from prescriptive as to how to alleviate the problems: A subsequent press release was short on details, mentioning expanded training and “providing access to resources and opportunities,” among other goals. Dayton was similarly vague in his Sunday interview.

“We need to see out there what’s effective,” Dayton said. “There’s a lot of different attempts being made, and they’re almost all underfunded.”

Sen. Terri Bonoff

Sen. Terri Bonoff

Some of those attempts are being made by Dayton’s fellow Democrats. Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, chair of the Senate Higher Education and Workforce Committee, said that group had tackled the issue of disparities “with ferocity” during her three sessions as chair. Bonoff recalled a public listening session with 300 attendees who were asked to rank the biggest issues within that sector; “equity and access” ranked as the top concern for that crowd.

Bonoff’s big effort toward that goal last session came through the “earn while you learn” legislation, which provides $3 million for apprenticeship and paid workforce training for college students. Over the next biennium, that money will be available for companies within four targeted industries — manufacturing, IT, agriculture and health care — where job demand has exceeded the supply of qualified workers.

“This has the potential to do just what Governor Dayton’s talking about,” Bonoff said. “We have to find a way to have these kids see a future for themselves.”

Bonoff said she had spent parts of the legislative interim trying to spread the word about the new program to high school students, particularly those in “at-risk” situations. To that end, she floated the idea of adding a “pot of money” to the program in 2016, with a grant possibly becoming available for a nonprofit or other outfit to fulfill a sort of “matchmaking” role between students and businesses.

“There’s not just one answer,” Bonoff said, speaking generally about economic disparities. “But we do need to do more than just talk about the problem.”

Sen. David Tomassoni

Sen. David Tomassoni

Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, observed that enough discussion of the issue had probably happened already, and he expressed frustration that previous efforts to increase minority employment rates had not helped.

“I don’t know if, maybe those hiring policies have failed, or if it’s just something we can’t get a handle on,” said Tomassoni, chair of the Senate Environment, Economic Development and Agriculture Finance Committee. He added, referring to Dayton’s new initiative: “This is an obvious attempt to make a dent into the very issue that people are saying is not working. Then, at least, the governor’s giving it a shot.”

Tomassoni said he was hopeful about seeing what sort of proposals the new office might bring to the Legislature, including the possibility of dedicated resources toward bettering minority economic outcomes. (When asked, Dayton’s office could not state definitively if the disparities office would seek legislative policy changes, or additional funding for DEED projects.) With a budget surplus that has continued to grow in the months since session ended, the economic development chair hoped that some new money would be available for job stimulus.

“DEED has the tools and capabilities to do it,” he said. “At a time when you have extra cash, now would be a perfect time to invest in the development of our workforce.”

It will take some convincing to bring Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, to agree with that line of thinking. Garofalo, Tomassoni’s economic development counterpart in the House, scoffed at Dayton’s announcement and suggested it was an unnecessary addition of bureaucracy.

“Without the bigger government, and higher taxes that are intended to reduce disparities, these problems would’ve been solved a long time ago,” Garofalo said.

The issue is not so much economic opportunity, Garofalo argued, but “an underlying problem” of failing school systems in Minneapolis and St. Paul, which have lagged in performance behind those in other parts of the state.

Both Tomassoni and Bonoff agreed that the problem of economic disparities was multifaceted, and would probably require more than just one approach to solve it.

“These are the kind of things that you try to address as legislators or as governor, and sometimes you don’t get there,” Tomassoni said. “It’s a valid issue, and the solution is going to be a difficult one. I guess you’ve got to start somewhere.”

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