Closing the gap

While disparities in homeownership and education grow, city looks to reverse the trend

In his final “Great City” forum on March 29 – the third speech in a series outlining the priorities of his second term -Mayor R.T. Rybak will highlight several initiatives designed to reduce the stark economic disparities in the city.

Rybak said while “billions of dollars of new investment” has sparked revitalization in many parts of the city, too many communities have been left behind.

“You can live in your safe neighborhood, or go to your good job and pretend that parts of the community that are deeply in pain don’t affect you,” he said. “But a city can’t be great, an economy can’t really grow, [and] we can’t raise the next generation if a permanent part of our community is not functioning as it needs to be.”

Rybak has served on the Itasca Project’s Disparities Task Force, which collaborated with the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program on the “Mind the Gap” report released last fall. The Itasca Project is a group of 40 Twin Cities business and civic leaders led by former Wells Fargo Chairman Jim Campbell.

The study analyzed disparities in the Twin Cities and found significant gaps in income levels, college attainment and home ownership rates between white and minority residents.

The “Mind the Gap” report found that Minneapolis and St. Paul are home to the majority of the region’s poor and minority households. The cities accounted for 23 percent of the region’s population according to the 2000 Census but were home to 54 percent of the region’s poor residents and 54 percent of the people of color.

While, overall, the Twin Cities ranked 14th among the nation’s largest metro areas in median household income, white households earned far more, on average, than minority households. In 2000, whites had a median household income of $56,642 while the typical African American household brought in $29,404 and a Mexican household $38,909.

There are also significant disparities in home ownership. The region ranked 7th in homeownership rates among the country’s 100 largest metro areas – a key way families build wealth. Seventy-six percent of whites were homeowners in 2000, but only 32 percent of blacks owned homes.

In Minneapolis and St. Paul, slightly more than half of residents own their homes. The number of Asian homeowners has doubled during the last decade, but the homeownership rates for black and Hispanic residents has remained half that of white families.

Rybak said the city is focused on moving “people up the housing ladder” by matching homeless people with housing, connecting people in public housing with homes or supportive housing and helping people leverage the equity in their homes to start new businesses.

The gap is also widening, according to the “Mind the Gap” report. Between 1989 and 1999, the average household income of the region’s top 20 percent wealthiest households increased 24 percent while the poorest households experienced slower wage increases of 16 percent.

College attainment rates also vary widely. Overall, about 42 percent white residents in the Twin Cities have a bachelor’s degree while 15 percent of the region’s African Americans; 13 percent of Mexicans.

The Brooking Institute’s Rebecca Sohmer, the principal author of the “Mind the Gap” report argues that Twin Cities leaders need to move quickly to close the gap to maintain a competitive workforce. In 15 years, the region stands to lose 350,000 highly skilled workers as the baby boomers start retiring in droves.

“Reducing disparities is not just the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do,” Sohmer wrote. “Minding the gap is crucial to preserving the region’s strong economic position.”

Rybak said the city’s efforts to reduce disparities focus on improving public safety in the city’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods, increasing the employment rate, expanding affordable housing and home ownership, and encouraging economic development in North Minneapolis, among other things.

The city is also collaborating with several public agencies to reduce health disparities between white and minority residents. Health Commissioner Gretchen Musicant said minorities continue to have higher rates of infant mortalities, teen pregnancies and homicides than whites.

“We’ll be expanding some of that work in all of the areas,” Rybak said. “Right now, there are a series of very significant initiatives to close the gap, especially in jobs and housing. Our challenge now is to keep those moving forward and expand on what we’ve learned.”

Some of the projects Rybak highlighted include calling on Lutheran faith leaders to hold financial literacy workshops for residents to encourage home ownership, working with the nonprofit Achieve!Minneapolis to launch career centers in Minneapolis public high schools, and encouraging redevelopment on Broadway and Lowry avenues in North Minneapolis.

“It’s important to lay out clear value of what matters in the city,” Rybak said. “We won’t be happy until every street is safe, everyone has a home, and people are connected to good jobs and a growing economy.”

The March 29 forum will be held 5:30 p.m. at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church, 2211 Clinton Ave. S., in the Whittier neighborhood.

The “Great City” forums lead up to Rybak’s “State of the City” address on April 18.