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Signs of economic progress for black Minnesotans, but wide poverty gaps remain

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A new Census Bureau survey shows many racial disparities in Minnesota.
The Census Bureau's latest American Community Survey shows many racial disparities in Minnesota.
Will Lager | MPR News

New U.S. Census data indicate wages earned by African-Americans are going up in Minnesota. Data released Thursday also show poverty and unemployment rates for this group seem to be trending downward. That's some good news for a state in which economic disparities between blacks and whites remain stubbornly wide. 

From 2015 to last year, median earnings for black Minnesotans rose 14 percent to $24,595.

George Arthur was among those who saw his income rise.  He works at the Twin Cities airport and got a $1.50-an-hour raise last year. He's making about $10.50 an hour now but says it's still not enough. He'd prefer to be in the range of $15 an hour. 

The unemployment rate for the state's African-Americans didn't change much from 2015, but the long-term trend is encouraging. In 2011, the black jobless rate was 20 percent. By last year it had fallen to 11 percent.

Dorian Curtis says he sees more jobs opening up.

"Opportunities are there. It's up to us to go and get them, for the most part," Curtis said.

Craig Helmstetter is managing partner of the APM Research Lab and Analyst Group, a division of Minnesota Public Radio's parent company that is focused on fostering data-based research. Helmstetter points out that black median earnings remain at only about 60 percent of white median earnings and have been near that level for a while.  The unemployment rate for African Americans is more than twice that of whites.

"Disparities continue to be very persistent and stark here in our state. But there is some good news in that we have some improving conditions concerning employment and earnings," Helmstetter said. 

Susan Brower, the Minnesota state demographer, said census data over the last several years shows more black Minnesotans have jobs and health insurance. Fewer children live in poverty.

"We've seen an increase in the proportion of black or African-American adults who are working, a decline in the poverty rate, especially if you compare it to 2010, a decline in the child poverty rate, a decline in unemployment rates," Brower said.

But the numbers from the Census' American Community Survey are grim on many fronts. For instance, 3 in 10 African-Americans still live in poverty. That's quadruple the rate for white Minnesotans.

Minnesota outshines most states in terms of  jobs and income for residents overall, but the state is in the middle of the pack when it comes to earnings and unemployment of African-Americans. And the poverty rate for blacks is much higher in Minnesota than other states.

Minneapolis Urban League President Steven Belton says those economic disparities feed despair.

"I'd like to see some government action and some policies that impatiently say we have to address this problem now,  we have to arrest it now," Belton said. "We can't wait for another cycle of ACS surveys to tell us what we already know."

Metropolitan Council regional planning director Libby Starling expects change will come slowly.

"Some of these disparities are at a scale that it will take years, if not decades, to really begin to significantly close these gaps," Starling said, adding that people are more aware of the problem.  She said addressing the disparities would require a great effort by the public and private sectors on many fronts, including education, housing, and transportation.

Faced with a worker shortage, Helmstetter of the APM Research Lab said businesses are turning to minority groups that have historically struggled economically. 

"This is sort of the start of a trend that we're going to be seeing over the next several years where more and more workers of color are pulled into the workforce," Helmstetter said. "The labor force is going to become tighter and wages are going up."