Dayton pledges to double down on efforts to address income inequality

cartoon-99ers-vs-1ersThe following article appeared in the Star Tribune on October 12, 2015:

Last month’s U.S. Census account of rising poverty rates among Minnesota’s African-Americans sounds an alarm about a serious economic threat to this state, not to mention a moral embarrassment. It cries out for a high-level response.

That’s what it’s been receiving from Gov. Mark Dayton. His announcement Sunday that he will create an Office of Career and Business Opportunity within the state’s economic development agency was the latest word from a governor who, to his credit, says he’s doubling down on efforts to reverse the African-American income trend line. African-Americans experienced a 13 percent drop in median household income between 2013 and 2014, the census report said, reaching a level that’s just 43 percent of median household income for white Minnesotans.

The office Dayton envisions would serve as a prod for inclusive job training, hiring and contracting, both within state government and in the private sector. Its leadership has not yet been selected, and its mission, as Dayton described it, is broad enough to raise questions about its overlap with existing state operations and its likely effectiveness. Still, such an office has the potential to bring some needed coordination and accountability to what have been disparate and sporadic state efforts to improve the economic lot of disadvantaged Minnesotans.

Dayton also used last week’s annual Minnesota Business Partnership dinner to summon the state’s private sector leaders to a cause he appears to be taking personally. “I fault myself for not starting this initiative sooner,” Dayton, now serving his second term, confessed to the assembled business leaders. “I guarantee it will be a top priority from now on. I ask you to make it one of your top priorities as well.”

Our guess is that Dayton isn’t the only Minnesota CEO who could make that confession. Racial equity has long been on the civic agenda of the Minnesota corporate community. But seldom has it been a top concern — not since racial disturbances on Minneapolis’ North Side in 1966 and 1967 led to the formation of the business-dominated Urban Coalition. For a number of years thereafter, that organization brought corporate leaders together to improve job training, hiring, contracting and lending policies for Twin Cities African-Americans. But corporate backing dwindled over time, and the Urban Coalition disbanded in 2004.

Thankfully, local racial violence isn’t spurring action now. But demographic reality should. Minnesota’s prosperity relies on a well-educated, productive workforce — a workforce whose growth is forecast to slow dramatically over the next two decades. Staying prosperous will require making the most of all of this state’s human capital, plus attracting more from other places.

It’s notable that a major driver of the reported downward trend in African-American incomes in Minnesota between 2013 and 2014 was a fresh influx of African immigrants, some of whom who first lived in other U.S. states. They came with low incomes but with determination to find a better life. Minnesota will do well to help them find it here. It’s good to see a governor make that cause his own. Other CEOs should follow his lead.