Upon reading the amazing book “Amazing MN” by Lee Lynch, I found myself smug and proud of my adoptive state, Minnesota. Fact after fact, picture after picture evoked, “Wow, I’m lucky to live here.”
We have 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”), I thought of my native Chicago when I rode the “L” downtown. I would see the boarded up neighborhoods, the crime infested streets, lack of viable businesses … and I would wonder 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 I have always believed that a wise investment in the less fortunate, to make them more “work-ready,” trained and educated, would make all of us more wealthy with a better quality of life.
I began looking in “Amazing MN” for statistics and pictures about the less fortunate in Minnesota—statistics showing we had a smaller “achievement gap.” Unfortunately, I 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. High school graduation rates for African Americans in the Twin Cities have been disappointingly low. Forty-five percent of Native Americans in the Twin Cities live in poverty. A Met 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, I am not advocating we should have cut the budget for the $1.2 billion Vikings stadium or the multi-million dollar monster homes on Lake Minnetonka by 10% and given it to the poor. In fact, that could actually hurt the poor if it teaches them that they do not have to work for money. The “have-nots” need to earn their way out of poverty. 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% of the work on the government-subsidized developments like the Vikings stadium be minority contractors or workers. (This actually happened much to the credit of the planners.) Let us do this more often.
*Require that low-income families occupy 20% 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 job-ready for jobs looking for workers.
*Invest more in training police dealing with race and mentally ill citizens.
*Get the Minnesota bishops to repeat what the pope said, roughly, in the Philippines: “Don’t have so many babies. We are not rabbits.” The bishops could also promote contraceptives and family planning rather than forbid them. Otherwise, we play into the hands of those who say, “Why help the disadvantaged? They will just beget more babies for us workers to help.”
*Secular and religious authorities should increase funding for family planning rather than cut funding.
*See the underachievers as a resource to develop, for their own good and the good of all.
*Ask our governors, mayors, legislators, business leaders, academics to debate these challenges.
Let me be clear. I am not advocating these changes in our spending because there is a “moral imperative” (although there probably is). I am advocating them because I think there is an enlightened self-interest in this line of action. I believe in the long run we will have even more wealth to invest in the big homes, big arts, big sports … if we put “the less fortunate to work.” Work creates wealth, dignity and a quality of life to all citizens. Shooting all the benefits to those at the top of financial pyramid may spoil them and make them lazy—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.