All eyes are on Ramsey County, MN, as it implements an ambitious 11-point plan that ties reducing inequality to boosting the Minneapolis-St. Paul region’s economy.
In the Twin Cities region, inequality and poverty are on the rise. Wages have stagnated, and the achievement gap between white students and the growing population of students of color is gaining national attention. Between 2001 and 2011, poverty in the region’s suburbs rose by 127 percent.
These are alarming indicators from a region and state known for their models of progressive government with a focus on equity. But now, officials in Ramsey County, have an ambitious plan to do something about it.
Officials have launched an 11-point program to boost prosperity in the region and reduce racial disparities. According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the program includes:
“improving support services for youth so that fewer kids end up in criminal detention; ensuring that county buildings and services are where they easily can be accessed by residents; elevating the visibility of the county’s workforce programs; and using more small local businesses when buying county goods.
There’s also a focus on creating internship opportunities for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and reviewing the county’s hiring and promotion policies.”
“Disadvantaged” in this case often means black, Latino, Hmong, and African individuals. In Ramsey County, 25 percent of people of color live in poverty compared with 6 percent of the area’s white population. Ramsey County also has a heavy concentration of the region’s federally subsidized housing (32 percent). This coupled with a lack of investments have increased concentrated poverty. Poverty rates in some suburban locations have reached as high as 40 percent.
“The fear,” according to the Star-Tribune, “is that unless something is done to reduce poverty among minorities, the county’s overall poverty rates will grow in step.”
The proposed solution is policy that is multi-jurisdictional, multi-faceted, and collaborative. The county will target public and private investment to community banks, grocery stores, retail development, transportation, and community centers. Public-private partnerships, including those with employers, will be key.
Ramsey County is on the right track, according to researchers at PolicyLink and the USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE). In “Minnesota’s Tomorrow,” a new report, they find that programs that promote racial and economic inclusion are critical to a region’s economic success. The authors call for an “equity driven growth model” that helps to connect vulnerable populations to good jobs while strengthening local and regional economies.
A successful future economy, researchers from Policylink and USC argue, must focus on equitable growth — creating good jobs, preparing workers for those jobs, and expanding economic opportunity for all.
Ramsey County is advancing that goal with its push to connect workforce development programs with private-sector employers who need skilled workers. Currently, according to the Star-Tribune, there’s a gap between what employers need and what workforce development programs are focused on.
St. Paul-based manufacturer J.W. Hulme, featured recently on CNBC, faced such a skills gap. When the company needed more skilled workers, CEO Jennifer Guarino reached out to Minneapolis-based Dunwoody College of Technology to design a six-month curriculum to teach the industrial sewing skills needed to produce high-end leather goods. The school agreed, on one condition: Guarino had to offer jobs to students who finished. The two eventually convinced other companies to join, forming “The Makers Coalition,” which trains and employs people with industrial sewing skills and promotes the trade. The coalition has recently expanded to Michigan.
The PERE report also highlights the work of Summit Academy OIC in Minneapolis, a community-based vocational training and job placement program that aims to help meet demand for future workers in construction (and other industries) to replace an aging, and mostly white, workforce. The workforce is needed to tackle the backlog of infrastructure projects in the area. The 20-week training program provides hard and soft skills to trainees in low-income communities, including high school dropouts.
These initiatives are promising. However, to be truly effective, they must expand beyond the local area and scale up the models that work.
The Obama administration has proposed several efforts to start that process. As a start, it is urging greater collaboration between local employers and community colleges as training hubs. In September 2013, the Departments of Labor and Education announced nearly $500 million in grants to community colleges for targeted training and workforce development to help dislocated workers change careers. The grants support partnerships between community colleges and employers to develop programs that provide pathways to good jobs and that meet industry needs.
President Obama’s 2015 budget also creates the Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative includes a four-year, $6 billion Community College Job-Driven Training Fund to launch new training programs and apprenticeships that will prepare participants for in-demand jobs and careers. The hope is to double the number of apprenticeships over the next five years. The budget also proposes $15 million for grants to states to focus on regional partnerships.
Bold new solutions like these are needed to ensure today’s students and tomorrow’s workers are prepared, and to ensure that economic growth is shared by everyone. Ramsey County is a place to watch.