Twin Cities unemployment divide for black, white people is nation's widest

Elected officials and business leaders are confronting a top ranking that no one wants.

The Twin Cities metro area has the nation's largest unemployment disparity rate between black and white people, and some of the most lopsided racial unemployment rates overall.

Tackling economic disparities in the region is becoming a growing priority for policymakers. Mayor Chris Coleman joined business leaders and other elected officials Wednesday in a pledge to reduce that gap.

Last year, more than 20 percent of African-Americans in the Twin Cities were unemployed. That's more than three times the rate for white people. Coleman said the community is failing to provide economic opportunities for everyone.

"That has to change, not only because it's the morally right thing to do, but because the economic well-being of our entire community is dependent on it," he said.

A coalition of businesses and nonprofits calling itself the Blue Ribbon Commission produced a report offering suggestions on how to reduce the gap. It's the latest detail in the Twin Cities' economic divide across race. Last week, the Minneapolis Foundation released a report showing minorities in that city lagged behind white people in areas such as education, income and economic vitality.

The statistics have gotten the attention of the St. Paul business community, including Matt Kramer. He's the head of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce.

"We cannot afford, as a state, as a region, as a city, as a county, to leave a single worker, who wants to be employed and is capable of employment, sitting on the sidelines."

St. Paul and Ramsey County leaders say the first step is to educate private employers and others about the consequences of employment disparities. The commission recommends legislation preventing employers from rejecting job candidates based on criminal backgrounds or credit scores, and also that employers and government agencies strengthen programs that prepare students for the workplace.

But Coleman and others agree that the roots of the unemployment divide are complex.

"You have to figure out how all our children have the skills they need to compete in a knowledge-based, 21st-century economy," Coleman said. "That starts at birth. That starts at making sure there's a stable living environment, making sure there's good nutrition, opportunities to do head start and being ready for kindergarten."

The question of why disparities are so pervasive in a state that seems so welcoming has also perplexed Hector Garcia, executive director of the Chicano Latino Affairs Council.

"This is one of the most generous, philanthropic states in the nation. So it's very peculiar that at the same time, it has one of the worst disparities — education, economic development, housing, imprisonment."

Garcia applauds the Blue Ribbon Commission for pledging to work with ethnic and racial communities as they develop strategies to reduce the disparities. Garcia said sometimes leaders in Minnesota take an arms-length approach to solving issues involving minority communities.

"I think there could be much better results if there were an effort to understand more deeply in a more nuanced way what our communities are all about," Garcia said. "That's what I think what is missing."

Ed Lotterman, an economics professor at Augsburg College, said every Minnesotan who wants to keep his or her quality of life should be concerned about the disparities.

"We have 70-something million people who are retiring over the next 18 years. For our standard of living not to decline, the people who are working to produce more," Lotterman said. "The country as a whole will come out better if we can put to work people who aren't working now."

Lotterman points to Japan, a country he says does not tap women's productivity as much as the U.S. does.

"Women tend to get shunted more into traditional jobs, and Japan is poorer for that. Here in the United States, we tend to be tolerant of higher unemployment rates and lower earnings for people in minority communities, but our nation is poorer as a result of that."

The Blue Ribbon Commission's goal is to reduce the region's racial employment disparities by 20 percent each year, and eliminate them completely by 2016.

Even as policymakers become more aware of the disparities, there's little consensus on how to reduce them, the report said. Ramsey County leaders say this is a good time to start that broader conversation.

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