Workers at fast food restaurants rallied all over the nation for a living wage. Many of these workers put in 80-hour weeks just to pay for basic living expenses. They say it's time the major fast food chains start paying workers what's fair in their fight for $15 an hour.
With the boom in urban living, cities are eager to grow their populations and draw people into the urban core. One big challenge, though, is that our housing stock isn’t in line with modern households. Most homes and apartments are oriented towards families, but a growing number of people live alone. In Minneapolis, over half of households consist of just one person, and the average household size is only 2.2 people (according to a recent presentation from the Minneapolis Department of Community Planning and Economic Development). Large dwellings for single people can be costly to both the environment and one’s wallet.
Many cities have considered housing code changes that better suit small households. Minneapolis is looking at changing its ban on adding accessory dwelling units (ADUs), such as carriage houses or “granny flats,” to current lots. At the moment, ADUs are banned in all but one neighborhood. Allowing them in the rest of the city offers several benefits. Small households can share one large lot, while multigenerational families can live together in adjoining but private homes.
Imagine a family with kids in their early 20s. Many young adults are living at home these days because they can’t afford to live elsewhere—so a separate apartment on the same lot could be a perfect place for them to live while their earnings are low but their desire for private space high. Down the road, perhaps those same parents are aging, ready to downsize, and need some help from their children. That same apartment offers a safe option to age in place, with their kids and grandkids in the main house. ADUs could also make it easier for some immigrant communities whose households are traditionally larger. Finding housing spacious enough for big families of minimal or modest means isn’t easy, leading to overcrowding, splitting up families, or substandard conditions.
For people on the opposite end of the household-size spectrum, another trend is microhousing, or building smaller apartments. In Minneapolis, the current minimum dwelling size is 350 square feet for an efficiency apartment and 500 square feet for all other units. Other cities have begun to experiment with building units in the range of 150 to 300 square feet, and so far they seem quite popular to renters, particularly Millennials. And smaller units don’t necessarily mean more traffic. Twenty units of 250 square feet may house the same number of people as ten units of 500 square feet, since the latter could include couples or families. In areas with good transit options, lower-income people are also less likely to have cars and therefore need extra parking spaces.
If done wisely, higher-density housing can still be attractive, safe, and a boon to the neighborhood. And given Minnesota’s serious affordable-housing shortage, we can’t afford to leave any stone unturned as we look for cost-effective solutions.
High-density housing spreads the cost of property taxes, maintenance, and utilities among more people, while providing a small simple home for people who don’t need or can’t afford more. If cities are going to attract the kind of vibrant growth they need, it’s time for us to reconsider housing codes in the face of America’s changing household composition.
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Imagine that you are a young couple setting out to buy your first home. You have decided that you would like to live in Saint Paul. One of the many great neighborhoods you would probably look at is the historic Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood. This neighborhood sits atop the bluffs on the east of side of the city overlooking the Minnesota River and downtown, a prime location here in Saint Paul.
Just a couple of blocks off the bluffs is a street called Maria Ave. It's quaint lined with modest foursquare victorians and homes that have been around for over 100 years. On the corner of Maria and 4th, is a larger, two-story Italian style home that has stood on this corner for 136 years.
Just a few years ago this house was in such disrepair, it could have easily been torn down. Instead, the City of Saint Paul invested in the neighborhood and as part of a program called the Neighborhood Stabilization Program. This home has now been fully restored to its former glory and is ready for a family to move back in.
As part of its effort to be ‘the most liveable city in the America’ the city of Saint Paul’s Department of Planning and Economic Development through the Housing and Redevelopment Authority created an initiative called Inspiring Communities. This initiative is all about preserving, growing and sustaining our neighborhoods here in Saint Paul. The Neighborhood Stabilization Program is just one of the many programs they utilize to make this happen.
Why is it important that we rehabilitate this building or any building really?
Because living in a sustainable community is about preserving and reusing what is already there. Not just tearing everything down and building new. Rehabilitating existing homes helps to keep things out of the landfill and it helps to preserve our history. Rehabbing and preserving are key components to making our communities sustainable, livable and desirable to live in.
The City of Saint Paul is on the forefront of making sure we have sustainable communities with initiatives like Inspiring Communities and programs like the Neighborhood Stabilization Program. We all want to live in healthy neighborhoods and energy efficient homes. I think this says it all:
"A unique opportunity exists for those interested in buying a home in Saint Paul. Homes rehabilitated through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program are affordable and energy efficient, which translates to lower operating costs over the course of owning the home.
Does your community have an Inspiring Communities Initiative or a Neighborhood Stabilization Program? Find out and if it doesn’t, maybe you should ask your city to create one.
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Last weekend’s Star Tribune strayed far from the streets of Minneapolis and provided several comprehensive looks at changes, issues and demographics of rural Minnesota. The timing was well-planned; we may be entering a new period of economic change that could alter Greater Minnesota for decades to come.
Several articles look at rural Minnesota—the 80 counties that aren’t part of the commonly cited seven county Twin Cities metro area – and how they have changed, grown, wilted or survived over the past three decades.
In a cover article, David Peterson quotes state demographer Susan Brower as noting 50 of Minnesota’s 87 counties are growing, including rural counties stretching from Canada to the Iowa border. On average, of course, that is a growth mode.
Peterson points out Osakis, in the Alexandria lakes region of west-central Minnesota, as a town that has turned its fortunes around. There are amenities there, such as lakes, and the Strib article makes it clear that Osakis had other attributes not uniformly found in small towns, such as local leadership.
The same article also notes there has been a repackaging of economic activity and population around hubs, such as Mankato. This doesn’t mean all is well in rural Minnesota. Rather, it points out there are bright spots that lift aggregate data for the entire countryside.
I’m offering these comments because one of the drivers of rural re-industrialization that has strengthened the overall rural economy and that of several small cities is ethanol production. Several Strib stories of the past week focused on how American bio-fuel policy is being challenged for a variety of reasons, and any pull back from ethanol fuels will have consequences for Minnesota farm income, rural jobs and the rural economy—although not the same for all farmers and rural residents.
One particularly helpful article for public understanding noted that Minnesota’s ethanol makers are looking for new markets, including export markets. That’s because the federal government is considering a reduction in the amount of ethanol it would require added to motor fuels in 2014 and 2015.
We won’t revisit all the issues at play in the debate over ethanol and renewable fuels. But make no mistake there are vested interests working throughout the public discourse of renewable fuels policy.
That brings up another Strib contribution to public understanding from this past Sunday. Bonnie Blodgett wrote a commentary on the importance and necessity of pure, publicly supported research at the University of Minnesota and other land grant universities across the nation. She explains clearly how public research support is shrinking while corporate support for applied research is on the rise. There are logical hooks to the latter, and research findings don’t always serve a public purpose.
We need more information about what is happening—socially, economically, demographically—in our rural communities. We need more pure research on ethanol and biofuels, and what they mean to our economy and environment. And we need what Blodgett notes that pure academic research brings - accountability.
“Shareholders don’t provide that,” she reminded Star Tribune readers. “Governments do.” And that is the source of pure, public research at our land grant universities.
It’s nothing new: the debate about whether SNAP (food stamps) money should be used to purchase junk food. The question is more complicated than it may seem on the surface. Yes, America has an obesity crisis and we’re allowing our tax dollars to buy pop and candy. On the other hand, some see it as overbearing to limit what someone puts in their grocery cart, and recognize the slippery slope for defining “healthy” and “unhealthy” foods.
As a SNAP outreach worker who meets with program participants and applicants every day, I see many sides to this issue. I’m not sure where I stand on every aspect of the debate, but I do know that limiting SNAP-eligible groceries would likely lower program participation, and not because people just want to fill their cart with cookies.
One of the main deterrents to SNAP participation among my clients is their fear of using their benefits incorrectly. The rules are currently quite simple: SNAP can be used for all groceries except for hot prepared foods and foods that will be eaten in the store. Other grocery-store staples like hygiene items, toilet paper, vitamins, etc. must be paid for another way.
Even with these clear parameters, people worry. What if they make a mistake and buy an ineligible item? Is it possible to overdraw their account? (It’s not.) If they have a problem, will it turn into an embarrassing scene in the checkout line? These worries pose a real barrier to potential SNAP applicants. Making the program more complicated only raises the worry about accidentally using SNAP incorrectly and getting in trouble. Even if they had no intention to buy a bag of chips alongside their lettuce and milk, people will stay away from the program because it’s confusing, and sometimes life is already complex enough as is.
In my experience, there’s a clear correlation between a program’s complexity and people’s willingness to participate. This isn’t just in the world of income supports; we all experience it every day. When it comes to anti-poverty programs, the results of nonparticipation are very serious. If we make it harder to use SNAP, I worry that we’ll see a real drop in participation among people who are hungry, poor, and afraid to use the help offered to them. Our attempts at "improvement" could ultimately increase hunger and poor health, not reduce them.
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For years, we've been reminding you about the importance of shopping locally. On Sunday, we released our yearly Made in Minnesota report: Fair Retail Wages Strengthen Local Economies, which encourages shoppers to think critically about the roles of retail workers in the stores they frequent.
"Awesome!" our readers have been saying, "Where should I shop?"
In his report, Lee provides a list of questions for socially responsible shoppers to ask of retailers:
- Is the store’s minimum wage $9.50?
- Are full-time employees eligible for affordable insurance (with premiums 10 percent or less of gross income)?
- Are full-time employees entitled to paid sick days?
- Are full-time employees provided with at least five paid days off per year?
- Are the majority of workers given full-time opportunities?
- Do the workers have predictable hours and consistent scheduling they can depend on every week?
- Are personnel policies clearly written and available to all workers?
See the challenge here? It's tempting to want a black and white list of good stores/bad stores, but there are so many pieces to this puzzle. Do not despair! Start by asking these question of the businesses where you already spend money. Let them know you care about how they treat their workers. Talk with your friends and colleagues. Share what you've learned.
Share your findings with us too! We're working on ways to help you zero in on Minnesota business that care about workers. However, even more powerful than a list is YOUR voice.
Have you had conversations with local retailers? Do you have recommendations for businesses that treat their workers well? Tell us in the comments!
A new report from the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California-Berkeley focuses on the public cost of low-wage jobs in America’s fast food industry. According to the report, “Medicaid, the Earned Income Tax Credit and the other public benefits programs… provide a vital support system for millions of Americans working in the United States' service industries, including fast food.”
The conventional wisdom is that workers in the fast food industry are primarily high school kids looking for a little extra spending money. However, the Berkeley Labor Center report finds that the vast majority of fast food workers (just over two-thirds) are not living with their parents. Among all fast food workers studied in the report (which included “core, front-line fast-food workers, defined as nonmanagerial workers who work at least 11 hours per week for 27 or more weeks per year”), those with children of their own substantially outnumber teenage workers who are living at home with their parents.
The report further found that “More than half (52 percent) of the families of front-line fast-food workers are enrolled in one or more public programs, compared to 25 percent of the workforce as a whole.” The cost to taxpayers of public assistance provided to these families—including food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program—is nearly $7 billion annually.
Despite public assistance, the report finds that fast food workers are more likely to live in poverty than other Americans. Furthermore, “Even full-time hours are not enough to compensate for low wages. The families of more than half of the fast-food workers employed 40 or more hours per week are enrolled in public assistance programs.”
The Berkeley report concludes that workings families would directly benefit from improved pay and specifically from an increase in the minimum wage. All the more reason for Minnesota lawmakers to increase the state minimum wage to $9.50 per hour. All workers—including those in the fast food industry—should be paid fairly so that taxpayers do not have to subsidize their meager wages through public assistance programs.
As you go about your shopping this holiday season, take a step back to look critically at the working environment of the employees at those stores. Are workers getting paid a livable wage?
Yesterday, we released a new report: Made in Minnesota 2013: Fair Retail Wages Strengthen Local Economies. Here are a few highlights from Sunday's press conference.
What about the money? Unemployment and labor force participation are important economic conditions, but the rubber meets the road when work becomes income. If many people are employed, but most aren’t paid much, that’s still not good.
Here, then, are the 2012 median household incomes for white, black, and Hispanic households in selected states.
(Data from American Community Survey)
There are a few familiar points here that call back to our test score gaps. First off, DC posts the highest black-white income gap (presumably this would be true for the Hispanic-white gap, but that data wasn’t included). That gap is largely because of very high white income, especially since DC’s median black income is actually a few thousand dollars higher than the US median. Connecticut, another regular high-gap state for test scores, also posts very large income gaps.
As for Minnesota, we have the third largest black-white income gap in the country and the tenth largest Hispanic-white income gap. Relative to the country, Minnesota’s white households are doing more than $6,000 better than the national median for whites, while our black households are about $4,500 below the national median for blacks. Our Hispanic households are about $1,300 better than the national median for Hispanics. Of course, a necessary qualifier is that the cost of living varies from state to state, and so the same amount of money can buy more in Mississippi than California.
Again, we see that equity is a combination of absolute and relative measurement. Maryland has the ninth largest black-white income gap, but its median black household has an income roughly the same as the median white income in the country.
The equity gaps we’re observing do not exist in isolation. Higher income does tend to predict higher academic performance. Higher academic performance, in turn, tends to predict higher income. Reducing intergenerational equity gaps means addressing multiple gaps at once right now.
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No one measure fully captures true social and economic complexity. It’s true in education, and it’s true in employment. In our unemployment gaps graph, we examined differences between Minnesotans from white, black, and Hispanic backgrounds.
Unemployment, however, is not simply the percentage of people in a group who don’t have a job. It’s the percentage of people who don’t have a job drawn from the pool of people who either have had a job or looked for a job in the last month. The technical term for that pool of people is the labor force.
Different groups can and do have different rates of participation in the labor force. Men and women, for example, historically had very different rates of participation in the labor force until feminists were able to drive a culture change that made it more acceptable for women to work outside the home and in a wider range of jobs. Low labor force participation rates can indicate barriers to economic participation.
So what do labor force participation rates look like in Minnesota? Here they are:
(Data from BLS)
The point of biggest concern here is that black Minnesotans, who already had a much higher unemployment rate than white Minnesotans, also have a lower labor force participation rate. That means that a smaller share of black Minnesotans have been seeking employment than white Minnesotans, and that they’ve had less success finding employment than white Minnesotans.
There are a lot of potential explanations for this, including the effects of institutional racism and the (accurate) perception that the recovery has not been particularly strong for Minnesotans of color. Whatever the underlying factors, it should be distressing that black-white equity gaps exist at two different levels of the employment picture.
The picture is a little less dire for Hispanic-white gaps, as Hispanics’ higher unemployment rate is in part a function of their higher labor force participation rate.
Once again, Minnesota should work for all Minnesotans. We have a growing pile of evidence that suggests Minnesota continues to work better for some than others, and it’s past time to start addressing those issues.