Suburban Poverty in the Twin Cities Area

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  • May 20, 2015

Alan Berube

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting with several groups of stakeholders in the Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) area to discuss local trends in, and responses to, suburbanizing poverty in the region.

Patterns of poverty in the Twin Cities region, it turns out, are pretty typical of those in large metro areas nationwide. Today, nearly 60 percent of people living below the poverty line in the MSP area live outside the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Between 2000 and 2013, their numbers rose a staggering 128 percent, compared to 37 percent in the two cities combined. Residents of the cities are still nearly twice as likely to be poor as their suburban counterparts, but that difference has narrowed in recent years.

In speaking with a diverse set of audiences in the region, I found that a few themes helped inform how leaders are approaching efforts to connect people to economic opportunity.

First, it’s about more than poverty, at least as the federal government defines it. The Twin Cities region is a relatively expensive place. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, MSP ranked in the top 10 percent of metro areas nationwide on regional prices. That’s why researchers at MIT conclude that the real costs of living in the region for a parent with one child—between food, housing, child care, transportation, and other necessities—top $40,000 a year, nearly three times the $14,000 federal poverty threshold. Different groups in the region are focused on bringing down those costs, or providing targeted subsidies, to help narrow the yawning gap between wages and prices for low-income working families.

Second, there’s an increasing recognition in the MSP area that communities should provide a range of housing options, not only to meet the needs of lower-income households, but also to avoid concentrating poverty in distressed neighborhoods. Participants at a convening of the Regional Council of Mayors described efforts to preserve affordable non-subsidized housing in their cities, a focus of the MN Challenge project. Suburban Washington County has worked with private and non-profit developers and local cities to build mixed-income housing at three transit-linked sites. Previously, we’ve profiled CommonBond Communities, one of the largest affordable housing developers in the region, which has an impressive track record of work in the suburbs. Debate continues, however, over the extent to which the region should target new affordable housing toward transit-oriented communities that lie primarily in the urban core.

Third, organizations working with low-income populations in the MSP area increasingly recognize the value of regional approaches. Compared to many other metro areas around the country, a relatively strong regional ethic prevails in the Twin Cities, exemplified by bodies such as the Metropolitan Council and Greater MSP. Second Harvest Heartland, one of the largest food banks in the United States, supports city and suburban food pantries across the MSP area, and is connecting to health providers and school districts to further scale its work. Workforce councils across the Twin Cities region are also beginning to collaborate more actively to enable sector-based partnerships and residents’ access to job opportunities outside their home communities.

While the challenges of suburbanizing poverty in the MSP region are all too typical, leaders throughout the area are mounting promising responses to help low-income families get ahead, regardless of their location. Those efforts bear watching.

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