Blueprint for a more equitable Minnesota aims for a more inclusive economy

Farmer harvesting soybeans near Worthington, Minnesota
Minnesota's undocumented population, which work in key industries like agriculture, worry about their health and economic picture amid COVID-19 pandemic. File photo shows a soybean farmer harvesting in Worthington, Minnesota, one of the state's most diverse agriculture center. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

We should all be heartened by the launch of a fresh new journalistic voice under a “Minnesota Reformer’’ label. Reform is in the best of our North Star State traditions, central to our identity, going way back.

This history of reform includes: our early status as one of the most ardently abolitionist of the Union states; becoming one of only six states to vote in 1912 for Teddy Roosevelt and his Progressive Party; the rise of the Farmer-Labor movement to become one of America’s most successful third parties; a solid legacy left by progressive Republican political leaders from Harold Stassen to Arne Carlson and Dave Durenberger, including innovative reforms that gave us the nation’s first metropolitan governance systems and a Pollution Control Agency; to of course social and racial justice pioneers from Roy Wilkins and Clyde Bellecourt to Hubert H. Humphrey through Paul Wellstone and beyond.

All this striving for reform and justice essentially boils down to the same righteous idea: fulfillment of the American promise of fairness and basic equality of opportunity, expanding rights and economic benefits and tapping the potential of previously excluded or marginalized humans, “all of God’s children,” in the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

A relatively new word in public policy and philanthropy for this striving is the word “equity” and it’s actually a better word for what’s possible than equality. Rather than a perfect egalitarian condition, the equity ideal carries a strong business sense, of building assets and a larger ownership share for those of us who historically have been excluded or left behind. Googling for the word equity still connects one mostly to finance and investment sites.

In that spirit of embracing equitable reform, the Thriving by Design Network was created two years ago. The chief organizers were Growth & Justice, a policy research organization that seeks a more inclusive economy for Minnesota, and, an advocacy group that has been working for almost two decades for shared sustainable prosperity and economic development among communities of color, led by North Minneapolis activist Brett Buckner.

We sought to answer this question: What are the policies and local practices that reverse our widening inequalities — racial, regional, economic and environmental? After 18 months of listening to 300 Minnesotans at more than a dozen gatherings from North Minneapolis to many in Greater Minnesota, and consulting scores of other groups seeking similar answers, our network has produced The Minnesota Equity Blueprint.

The Blueprint is a 170-page guidebook with a detailed set of 140 recommendations for the consideration of all our residents, local community organizations, business and non-profit leaders, and of course, state and local policymakers. We believe it is one of the most comprehensive, practical and constructive policy frameworks our state has seen in recent decades. It also is one of the more ambitious attempts to fully integrate policy and local practice around both equity and environmental action. It inflects strongly on racial and overall economic inequality and also on rural distress and regional disparities.

The Blueprint is divided into the following four focus areas.

Human Capital: Improve the economic security of households by sustaining safety net investments and increasing pay and benefits for those at the bottom, providing more incentive to work and to build assets. Invest more before K and after 12, with early childhood enrichment for families most in need, and career pathway models that equip students with skills and post-secondary credentials for the jobs most in demand. Curtail discriminatory practices in law enforcement and compounding of collateral consequences for legal infractions, and disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline that prevents thousands of Minnesotans from participating fully in the workforce and economy. Greatly increase teachers and staff of color in schools. Provide affordable high-quality health coverage for every Minnesotans, beginning with expanded public option through Minnesota Care.

Economic Development: Encourage entrepreneurial and small business development for rural regions and communities of color by eliminating regulatory burdens and increasing access to capital. Ensure universal access to affordable high-quality child-care. Develop markets for new agricultural products. Increase state bonding bill investment in arts and cultural amenities, particularly in rural regions and in communities of color. Welcome immigrants to alleviate our workforce shortage and allow undocumented workers to obtain driver’s licenses.

Infrastructure: Enact a major new funding package for improving highways and bridges, transit and mobility, and biking and walking options. Realign regulatory and tax structures to stimulate the construction and preservation of affordable housing. Increase rural broadband investment to ensure universal access to high-speed internet.

Environmental Resilience: Set bold new goals and action plans to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emission, through converting to renewables in the power grid, through electrification of vehicular transportation, and through more sustainable agriculture and land use that minimizes agricultural pollution and that sequesters carbon. Move toward aggressive clean-up of surface water now classified as “impaired.’’ Incentivize movement toward Zero Waste goals. Respect sovereign rights of Native Americans and expand protections of both native lands and waters and wilderness areas.

We know that reaching agreement on the particulars of these solutions will not come easy and may take many years. The authors of the Blueprint are not dogmatic about its solutions. It is intended as a draft and a living document, and over time we may discover that some solutions may not work, while no doubt many sound ideas are missing or will come along.

But as the new decade begins and the 2020 legislative session proceeds, the Blueprint serves as one place where the full range of options can be considered. Reforming our state into a more inclusive society with a healthier environment will be the most important tasks of our time.