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Money for nothing in north Minneapolis

David Strom//December 8, 2015

Money for nothing in north Minneapolis

David Strom//December 8, 2015

Ask a Democrat what the solution to any problem is, and you are likely to get one of two answers: Ban something, or spend a ton of money to deal with it.

In response to the unrest in north Minneapolis, Gov. Mark Dayton chose the latter option: He proposed spending $15 million to address racial disparities. According to a report in the Pioneer Press “the Democratic-Farmer-Labor governor said he does not have specific programmatic goals for the money to reduce disparities. He would rather that be determined by the community, he said.”

I have to congratulate Gov. Dayton on his fresh approach to wasting taxpayer dollars. Usually politicians make false promises about their proposals; Dayton’s refreshing approach is to simply write a check to the people complaining the loudest and hope they go away and figure out how to divvy up the loot.

Racial disparities aren’t a made-up problem, either. They are deadly serious, so it would have been refreshing to see the governor do something other than shrug and promise a payoff.

As a resident of north Minneapolis, I live less than a mile away from the Fourth Precinct, where the protests closed the streets, and even closer to where the shootings took place. I’ve seen shootings, SWAT raids, and drug deals right on my block. I often share my neighbors’ sense that north Minneapolis is something of an afterthought to policymakers who love to build shiny, new buildings, trains, rose gardens and dog parks in wealthier parts of the city.

I’d love to see genuine respect for the challenges residents of north Minneapolis face, and a genuine effort to close the economic and social gaps that divide the races.

But honestly, haven’t we learned by now that writing checks and buying community “leaders” off does nothing to address the real challenges facing our communities? Isn’t that exactly what the state and local leaders did when they funneled millions of dollars through Community Action of Minneapolis, which was nothing but a slush fund for so-called community leaders?

Local politicians sat on the board of that organization and uttered not a peep of dismay as its recently indicted president Bill Davis spread the money around and lived it up at the expense of his neighbors for decades. Davis is the well-deserved fall guy, but our mayors, legislators, our congressman, and even state officials all participated in a multi-decade cover-up of malfeasance. Until recently they would proudly say they were helping address the problems of north Minneapolis. Now they play Sergeant Schultz, who knew nothing.

Policymakers put up with such scams because they don’t want to face up to the hard realities of improving life for Minnesota’s minority citizens.

The single most important remediable issue is the shameful state of our education system.

Minnesota has one of the worst achievement gaps between white students and minorities in the nation. Black and Hispanic students do better in Mississippi. According to Governing Magazine, only 51 percent of black students and 53 percent of Hispanic students graduate in Minnesota, the worst rate in the country. Sixty-nine percent of black students graduate in Mississippi, and 79 percent of Hispanics. The national averages are a 79 percent graduation rate for black students and 73 percent for Hispanics.

Every single policymaker in Minnesota knows this, and I would wager that not a single politician of either party would deny that a decent education is vital to success in life.

Yet Gov. Dayton wants to write a check for $15 million and hand it over to the “community,” whatever that means.

Addressing the real problems of family dissolution and a poor educational system is hard work, while spending money is easy and fun. There are no teachers unions to fight when you ignore educational failures and go straight to handing out cold cash. And if you ignore family breakdown, you get to sidestep messy social and family issues.

But the cash won’t make any lasting difference, except to the people who get to spend it on themselves, because climbing the economic ladder requires hard work, a supportive environment, and a decent education. And, of course, a firm belief that success is possible.

If Gov. Dayton really cares about making things better for residents of north Minneapolis, he should regularly visit our local schools and vow to improve graduation rates, even if it means taking on the teachers unions. He should visit with local pastors to discuss the crisis of family breakdown. He should consider adopting a class of high school kids at North—and having his commissioners join him — to ensure that as many of them graduate as possible.

That’s a lot harder than writing a check, of course.

David Strom is principal of Think Write Do, a public affairs consulting firm. 

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