Making Nice at the Great Minnesota Get-Together

The Minnesota State Fair is on and hundreds of rural kids, especially 4-Hers and FFAers, have come to town to make nice with city folks. This used to be a time when rural and urban would meet and sometimes study cultural differences.

Modern media, modern education, and general mobility have wiped out most cultural endowments that separated rural from urban in past decades Science has greatly changed lifestyles out on the farms as well. But humor, even when saluting the present, still reaches back to an earlier time in rural America.

So it is that as the Minnesota State Fair winds down on its 12-day annual run, agricultural-oriented email sites are passing around the following letter home from a farm kid in Marine Corps basic training.

“Dear Ma and Pa,

“I am well. Hope you are. Tell Brother Walt and Brother Elmer the Marine Corps beats working for old man Minch by a mile. Tell them to join up quick before all of the places are filled.

“I was restless at first because you get to stay in bed till nearly 6 a.m. But I am getting to I like sleeping late. No hogs to slop, feed to pitch, wood to split, fire to lay. Practically nothing.

“Men got to shave but it is not so bad; there's warm water. Breakfast is strong on trimmings like fruit juice, cereal, eggs, bacon, etc., but kind of weak on chops, potatoes, ham, steak, fried eggplant, pie and other regular food. Tell Walt and Elmer you can always sit by the two city boys that live on coffee. Their food, plus yours, holds you until noon when you get fed again.

“We go on "route marches," which the platoon sergeant says are long walks to harden us. If he thinks so, it's not my place to tell him different. A "route march" is about as far as to our mailbox at home. Then the city guys get sore feet and we all ride back in trucks.

“We have what they call hand-to-hand combat training. You get to wrestle with them city boys. I have to be real careful though, they break easy. I'm about the best they got in this except for Tug Jordan from over in Silver Lake. I only beat him once. He joined up the same time as me, but I'm only 5'6" and 130 pounds and he's 6'8" and near 300 pounds dry.

“Be sure to tell Walt and Elmer to hurry and join before other fellers get onto this setup and come stampeding in.

“Your loving daughter,


Posted in News & Notes | Related Topics: Agriculture 

What State is Jeff Johnson Looking At?

“It is never a good thing to see jobs fleeing the state,” Jeff Johnson declared in a press release from earlier this summer. One can only wonder what state the conservative gubernatorial candidate is referring to, because it doesn’t sound like Minnesota.

Since Mark Dayton, the man Jeff Johnson wants to replace, came to office in January 2011, the total number of jobs in Minnesota have grown by 5.7 percent, significantly greater than the Midwestern average of 4.9 percent.* And how about Wisconsin, the home of conservative golden boy Scott Walker, the man that Johnson plans to emulate as the next governor of Minnesota? Wisconsin’s job growth rate is a disappointing 4.1 percent—as far below the Midwestern average as Minnesota is above it.

Approximately one year ago, Minnesota had officially regained all of the jobs lost during the Great Recession. Wisconsin, on the other hand, still hasn’t recovered all of the jobs it lost; in fact, as of July 2014, Wisconsin is still 25,000 jobs (0.9 percent) short of its pre-recession peak.

In fairness to the Badger State, it was hit much harder than Minnesota by the recession which officially ended in June 2009. Furthermore, not all of Wisconsin’s lackluster job growth can be blamed on Scott Walker, just as Mark Dayton cannot take credit for all of Minnesota’s above average job growth—although after over three years in office the policies pursued by both governors could be influencing the job trajectory to at least some extent. However, of two things we can be sure:

The conservative article of faith that tax increases are job killers and tax cuts are job producers is not borne out by the facts. Former state economist Tom Stinson has noted that Minnesota above average income growth over the last half century is in large part attributable to smart investments in education, infrastructure, and other public assets that improve Minnesota’s quality of life—investments paid for largely with tax dollars. Over the last two years, progressive state policymakers have restored a relatively small portion of cuts made to these investments over the last ten years.

By emulating the far right agenda of Scott Walker, Jeff Johnson would be pursuing policies that haven’t worked out very well in Wisconsin. For that matter, they haven’t worked that well in Minnesota either, as demonstrated by Minnesota’s disappointing economic performance during the Pawlenty years. If anything, conservative “solutions” to the twin problems of sluggish job growth and income inequality have only made matters worse.

*Employment numbers cited here are based on seasonally adjusted total non-farm employment from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Job Growth  Midwestern States 

Video: Health Care Workers Vote to Unionize

Homecare workers gathered at the State Fair this afternoon to announce the results of their union election. By a decisive vote, over 60% voted "yes" to form a union and join SEIU. Workers will now have the opportunity to join together and bargain collectively with the state for better working conditions, wages and benefits that will improve the quality of life for workers, and the quality of care patients receive.  

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Health Care Professionals  Union  Workers' Rights 

We Can Become an “Opportunity City”

The website,, recently posed the question “What (and who) is a city for?” Which led me to consider the question: With all of the changes to the Twin Cities in recent years, how are we working for the betterment of all Minneapolis-St. Paul residents?

The author, Joel Kotkin, frames this argument between two possible options for metropolitan areas: luxury cities or opportunity cities. Luxury cities, such as New York City, Chicago or Los Angeles, are characterized as “entertainment machines” with blocks full of an amalgamation of “chic restaurants, shops, and festivals.”

The “less stimulating,” opportunity city, on the other hand utilizes urban life as a means to work towards upward mobility and improved well-being for the middle and working classes. These opportunity cities are, frequently, a destination for immigrants, promotion of housing equity and even diversity of industry and those who own the firms.

Which category should we belong to?

Minneapolis and St. Paul women, for example, own 33 percent of all firms (much higher than the national average). Furthermore, we have a 50 percent homeownership rate which the article cites as integral in attracting middle class families, and is in line with other major metropolitan areas, such as Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver and Nashville.

A majority of opportunity cities are in the middle swath of the country and, although Minneapolis-St. Paul is missing from this list as of now, we have the potential to be a strong, defining game-changer. This forward momentum can be tracked in Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges’ first city budget, where equity and diversity of industry play a large part in Minneapolis’ future growth.

The general economic recovery, paired with Minnesota’s progressive policies coming from the capitol, has boosted Minneapolis and St. Paul’s likelihood for inclusion among these fast-growing cities. Kotkin iterates that, “to a large extent, this [city] growth is fueled by middle-class movement to regions that offer both economic prospects and more affordable housing prices.”

These economic prospects are defined by the diversification and development of industries that the Twin cities have already been doing. Revitalizing industrial jobs, adding STEM jobs as well as continuing mid-skilled job growth are all aspects that will continue to push the Twin Cities higher up on the list of opportunity cities.

The real question, then, is whether Minnesota can create and sustain the level of equity a title like 'opportunity city' implies. Our leaders have shown that they want to support open opportunity for all now and in the future, but we can challenge them to go further in creating this environment.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Business Growth  Minnesota Cities  Minneapolis / St Paul 

Marching on for Women’s Equality

I was 14 years old in 1976 when I marched in support of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) with a local chapter of National Organization for Women (NOW). It was a short march in a small Western New York town. But, that march was transformative and fed my hunger to learn more about the women making headlines of the time: Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm and Bella Abzug, to name just a few. It wasn’t until I went off to college not far from the home of the historic 1848 Seneca Falls Convention that my lessons began about the first wave of feminists, the suffragists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

We honor the work of those brave early feminists on this Women's Equality Day, commemorating the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that granted women the right to vote.

Fast forward 94 years. Not only do we vote—we are being voted into office. "We are growing in number,” Senator Amy Klobuchar told the NY Times.  “But more importantly, we are growing in our power."  And making other strides. Early this year at home, the Women’s Economic Securities Act (WESA) was signed into law. 

Now, we must continue the work of the early feminists. What do women want and need? I emailed that question to a few women in my network and here's what they all agreed. Women need financial equity. Narrowing the gender-based wage gap is the number one issue on the minds of women I heard from:

"Pay is the most important feminist issue facing women today. We continue to face stereotypes in terms of pay structures and that harms women. Thirty years ago Minnesota passed the Local Government Pay Equity Act which was the state's way of leveling the playing field in terms of pay attached to men's and women's work. As a result pay is assigned to women's work as well as men's work based on skill, effort, working conditions, and responsibility for employees of cities, counties, and school boards. We do this through job evaluation and gender neutral rating of jobs. However, the private sector pay scales are so focused on market rates that include within them historic discrimination. Caregivers (women) are paid less than road repair workers (men), teachers (women) are paid less than engineers (men), marketing associates (women) are paid less than groundskeepers (men) even though the levels of responsibilities, problem solving, know how, and communication skills of the women's jobs are often greater than the men's jobs. We have a great deal of shifting to do in this respect."                                                                                                                                                         -- Patty Tanji, Pay Raise/Compensation/Pricing Strategist, Open Workplace LLC

"It’s been only 40 years since women could obtain a credit card in her own name without a man co-signing it for her. It was 1974 when the Equal Credit Opportunity Act was passed. I find that shocking. And, here we are forty years later talking about whether feminism is a relevant term anymore. We are still seeing institutionalized inequity in pay scale. We need to be treating people equally and paying people for their value. It's about equality."
-- Cecily Sommers, Futurist/Author, Founder of The Push Institute

“Additional funding must be made available for women business owners. The biggest obstacle for female entrepreneurs is access to capital, particularly venture capital, where women-owned businesses only receiving 6-8 percent of the funding. Achieving parity in the area would mean true equality for women in the area of business development.”
-- Elaine Wyatt, Executive Director, WomenVenture

The Peggy Olsons of the world may have helped coin the cigarette advertising slogan, We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby, but we have a long way yet to go until the work of men and women are valued equally. What will Minnesota be like for women forty years from now? Let’s continue working together—men and women—to ensure policies are in place to help close the economic gap so we can all enjoy a full, rich life of opportunity.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Gender Inequalities  Workers' Rights 

New USDA Program Improves School Nutrition

From a nutrition perspective, 2014 has been a good year for low-income Minnesota students. Earlier this year the Legislature passed a bill mandating the state to pay for school meals for students who qualified for “reduced-price” meals. (Previously, families paid a partial fee to cover what the USDA doesn’t pay.) This change guarantees that more low-income children will always have access to free meals at school.

The new school year will see another positive step forward through the USDA’s community eligibility program. This program, which launched in a few states in 2011, is available nationwide for the first time this fall. Community eligibility targets high-poverty schools where many students already participate in free/reduced school meals or other financial assistance programs. Through community eligibility, all students in those schools may receive free breakfast and lunch, without each individual student needing to enroll. The USDA reimburses schools based on how many students qualify as low-income based on their participation in several other income support programs. Families no longer need to complete an additional round of forms to enroll their children in free meals and schools no longer need to process these forms. This improves student access to the meals they need to succeed in school while reducing the paperwork burden for families and schools.

Over 350 Minnesota schools are now eligible to enroll in this program, which offers great promise for schools with high concentrations of low-income students. Pilot schools in other states have reported increased breakfast and lunch participation, improved academic performance, and reduced administrative costs. In some schools, these improvements have actually boosted their nutrition programs’ revenues.

Community eligibility also opens the door to improve meal programs in other ways because there’s no need for a cafeteria checkout line to ring up each individual student. For instance, some schools have struggled to get students through a breakfast line in the harried time between their arrival and the start of class. Now schools can simplify by offering food right as students enter the building or by delivering breakfast directly to the classroom. Every student can count on breakfast every day as part of their routine.

Minnesota schools will no doubt invent some creative ways to improve student health and achievement through community eligibility. We can look forward to seeing the fruits (pun intended) of this new program as students return to school.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: Nutrition  Children's Health 

On Higher Education, Where Do We Stack Up?

In adults ages 16-29, the United States ranks 16th in numerical proficiency and 11th in literacy proficiency, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This new metric, entitled the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, assesses knowledge retention and use in professional settings.

Kevin Carey of the New York Times' Upshot Blog suggests that, due to the newly released OECD study, those who lament the status of our K-12 education system should also be concerned about the status of American colleges and universities. The main problem is that the reality of America’s collegiate mediocrity does not match the rhetorical arguments made by our nation’s leaders.

While it is true that the United States houses 19 of the world’s top 25 universities, academic strength should be judged by the average achievement of those surveyed. For example, great works of literature are still coming from the United States; however, our 11th place in literacy proves that, on average, the United States has significant work to do.

How can we work together to make the United States the best country for higher education?
The answer is two-fold. Surveys have shown that public universities educate up to 75 percent of American college students; however, public funds have decreased by an average of $2,394 per student (27 percent) between 2008 and 2012 alone.

Tuition has, therefore, become more prevalent in supporting school expenses and has led to some families being “priced out” of their education. Increased public funds for large universities would also keep large universities accountable to the public, not just big private donors.

As for changing practice, more colleges and universities should increase their emphasis on critical thinking and creative problem solving in every education setting. Knowledge retention is enhanced greatly by these different practices, and they don’t just belong in a liberal arts education setting.

Engineering or high-level mathematics classes benefit just as much from these learning practices as do creative writing or sociology. It is a fallacy to state that cohort learning or experiential development is only beneficial in one, not the other.

By enacting these two changes, the United States can put its colleges and universities on track to become more competitive. It won’t happen next month or next year, but we owe it to our students to ensure their success and effectiveness in the world.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: Higher Education 

The Broken-Down Empire Builder

James J. Hill, the 19th century St. Paul businessman who built the St. Paul Cathedral and a great railroad to the Pacific Northwest, must be spinning in his grave. The once-proud train that bears his sobriquet, the Empire Builder, has become a slow-motion blot on his legacy.

"Eighty-five years after its debut as the Great Northern Railway's premier passenger service to the west, the Empire Builder is broken," the Flathead Beacon of Kalispell, Mont., sadly reported. "Five years after the Empire Builder had some of Amtrak's best on-time performance rates, even outpacing Amtrak's high-speed Acela train between Boston and Washington, delays of three to five hours are now commonplace."

This is Minnesota's only intercity passenger train, once the most popular of Amtrak's long-distance routes but now bleeding ridership with each botched timetable performance. It's not a public-sector failure for the quasi-governmental rail agency, but one of the private-sector BNSF Railway whose tracks it leases the use of. 

As passenger rail improvements—some publicly financed, some private enterprises—are blossoming across the rest of America, the Empire Builder's woes will only drive down support for such advances around here.

After delays of up to 12 hours on an already leisurely schedule plagued the train during the harsh winter, Amtrak modified its timetable in April. It didn't help much. "In June, the westbound Empire Builder, train No. 7, stayed on schedule 10 percent of the time," the Beacon noted. "The eastbound train, No. 8, has a zero percent on-time rate." By then, ridership was down 19 percent from June 2013, which was already off from the record 2012 year of 543,000 boardings.

Problems like this for Amtrak aren't confined to the Empire Builder as a surge in freight on share tracks, only partly caused by the U.S. crude oil boom, gums up the schedules. But the timing could hardly be worse as "Americans are getting more and more frustrated with air travel," according to Tanya Snyder at StreetsblogUSA.

Snyder cited a U.S. Travel Association survey that found significant percentages of respondents unhappy with the hassles of flying, some so much that they're traveling less than they used to or planned to. The Travel Association pegged the industry's losses from trips not taken at $27 billion. A 2011 Harris interactive poll found that a third of business travelers and two-thirds of leisure travelers would ride high-speed rail instead of jetliners, of the former existed.

In the face of such an opportunity, Amtrak has even taken a page from the airlines' playbook, getting rid of free amenities altogether or charging for them. "Amtrak is acting more like an airline every day," wrote Christopher Elliott in USA TODAY.  "And not in a good way."

Since late May, Empire Builder passengers have had to fork over $8 for a blanket, pillow, earplugs and eye shade. No more free glasses of wine, either. It's the kind of cost-cutting and revenue enhancement that might please congressional funders, but not passengers, especially when the train pulls in hours late.

James J. Hill might have had a smart solution when he ran both the passenger and freight ends of his railroad, and air and car travel weren't competing with him. Today's fragmented transportation market complicates matters. But trains—at their best efficient, comfortable and internet-friendly—deserve more respect than they're getting from practically any quarter these days.

Photo credit: John Mueller, creative commons

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Passenger Rail 

When Should the Public Pay for Purple Squirrels?

Go to college, get a job, make a decent wage. That’s how it’s supposed to work right? Only if everyone gets that decent wage at the end of it all.

Multiple pieces of research (summarized in part by The Atlantic) identify what employers are most looking for from job applicants who just graduated from college. High on the list, well above college GPA or the relevance of college coursework, are internships and work experience. Again, these are what employers are looking for from new graduates.

What, then, to make of the constant complaints that employers can’t find qualified workers? What of the much-discussed STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) shortage? Well, as you may remember from past coverage, our problems in STEM aren’t really about the number of graduates in STEM fields.

This is a good reminder of the mismatch between an employer’s ideal candidate and what our schools, colleges, and universities can reasonably produce. In the parlance of job recruiters, they’re all hunting for purple squirrels: people with the perfect education and experience. This tends to imply a worker trained at someone else’s expense (where else is that work experience going to come from). And, of course, the ultimate purple squirrel is willing to work for free.

The role of public education should not be the production of purple squirrels. Even stepping back from the purple squirrel idea to the notion of simply preparing graduates to work for particular local employers, we can see problems.

Let’s say a local employer has five positions for a certain kind of job that it needs to fill every year. If a nearby college could produce five graduates each year who meet that employer’s criteria, it would still be better for the employer if the college produced ten. It would be even better for the employer if the college produced twenty. Flooding the market means the employer can drop wages, paying people less than their work.

Public education’s priorities are its students and the public at large. Employers’ needs are important only to the extent they support those two. Convincing thousands of students to take on additional debt only so they can fight for low wages in an oversaturated market is not —or at least should not be—the business of public schools, colleges, or universities. Helping Minnesota's students prepare for jobs is great, but we should recognize the difference between employers’ interests and those of students or the public in general.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Higher Education  Job Growth 

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Forward Together

Lean on me/When you’re not strong/I’ll be your friend/I’ll help you carry on…

This old Bill Withers song never sounded so good, ringing out from a not-nearly full enough Peavey Plaza on Saturday, August 16, where the Reverend William Barber, along with his traveling arts expert, Yara Allen, was getting ready to lead a march down the Nicollet Mall.

Reverend Barber and Yara Allen were in town at the request of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, and in honor of Barber’s work as the leader of not only the North Carolina NAACP, but also the growing, grassroots Moral Monday movement.

I am so grateful that I got to meet Barber in person, to introduce my children to him, and to be astounded, amazed, floored, and inspired by not only his rhetorical skills, but also his grounded, strategic tips for how to build a unified movement of, by, and for the people.

Forward together, not one step back.”

A key tenet of Barber’s message is unity: Forward together—not one step back. While Barber was in Minneapolis at the invitation of the teacher’s union, he made it clear that tackling disparities and inequities in education is everybody’s problem. In a sea of acrimony, Reverend Barber’s message rings out like a clarion call, and he does not shy away from his belief that he is building and leading a moral movement.

You cannot care about education and not care about student hunger and homelessness, said Reverend Barber. You cannot trumpet the successes measured by test scores while ignoring the many who “fail” to perform. You cannot build a house from the roof on down, he said. You must build a house up, from the bottom to the top.

With a new school year upon us, we must admit that no one of us, acting alone, has all of the answers for anyone else—and especially not for our most struggling communities and the children who live in them. To carry Reverend Barber’s message forward, we must find a way to come together, bury our egos, and find common ground.

In North Carolina, Reverend Barber has found that it is working to lead with heart, with honesty, and with an insistence on the immorality of, among other things, resegregated schools, draconian austerity measures, and the further privatization of our public institutions.

He has brought people together, and forward, in North Carolina. Will we now follow his lead in Minnesota?

Posted in Education | Related Topics: Education Reform 

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