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The American Dream is alive in the Twin Cities, but not for everyone

March 18, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
In the United States, the best cities for making a living are usually the least affordable. Minneapolis-St. Paul has been an exception, thanks in part to progressive laws on education, tax sharing and housing. But even in the Twin Cities, there’s a sharp racial inequality gap. Judy Woodruff interviews writer Derek Thompson as part of a collaboration between The Atlantic and the PBS NewsHour.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It might surprise you to hear that one of the hot destination cities, especially for young so-called millennials is the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul.

I traveled there recently as part of our partnership with “The Atlantic” to explore the findings in a recent article in the magazine, and to try to find out whether the so-called Minneapolis Miracle is really paying off for everyone.

In many ways, millennials, ages 18 to 35, may be the biggest victims of the great recession.

Writer Derek Thompson has lived this reality in New York City, one of the most expensive on earth.

DEREK THOMPSON, The Atlantic: I wanted to figure out why the American dream seemed to be splintering between cities that were upwardly mobile and cities that were affordable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For answers, Thompson turned to the latest national data on cities with the greatest opportunity to move up into the middle class and beyond vs. the cost of living.

DEREK THOMPSON: The cities that were the best for upward mobility were the worse for affordability, and the cities that were the most affordable had bad upward mobility.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One exception to the rule:

DEREK THOMPSON: Minneapolis-Saint Paul was clearly at the top. It was the richest city that was exceptional.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The greater Minneapolis-Saint Paul metro area is made up of at least 13 counties and approximately 3.5 million people. The latest U.S. census ranks it as having the fifth highest median household income in the country.

DEREK THOMPSON: Among workers between 18 and 34, it’s top 10 when it comes to median income, it’s top 10 when it comes to lowest poverty rate, when it comes to highest share of college graduates.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Good statistics for a city that often goes unnoticed on both coasts.

MYLES SHAVER: I would talk to my professional friends around the world, and they would ask me, what are you doing in Minneapolis?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Myles Shaver is a business professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.

MYLES SHAVER: And I say, there are 17 Fortune 500 headquarters in town. And they would go, you can’t be right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The area is home to many world-class brands, including Cargill, General Mills and Target.

MYLES SHAVER: We have had this talented work force that tends to stay here and move amongst companies, rather than pick up and move across the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Many believe the success the Twin Cities have seen is more than just an accident of location, commerce and quality of life.

MAYOR CHRIS COLEMAN, Mayor of Saint Paul, Minnesota: There’s always been kind of a collective sense of community in the state of Minnesota and the Twin Cities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Saint Paul Mayor Chris Coleman knows the area’s political history well. His father, Nick Coleman, was the state Senate majority leader from 1973 to 1981.

CHRIS COLEMAN: In the ’70s, there was an incredible spirit of, what can we do differently to make sure that everyone is benefiting and that the whole state is elevated as a result of our policies?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Politicians on both sides of the aisle passed progressive education, tax-sharing and housing laws.

MYRON ORFIELD, Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, University of Minnesota Law School: It was called the Minnesota Miracle at the time. It was very unique, and it had tremendous benefits to the quality of life as a city.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Former state legislator and law professor Myron Orfield runs the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota.

MYRON ORFIELD: And we decided in 1971 that every community would share 40 percent of the growth of its business tax base.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Minneapolis-Saint Paul was one of a very few metro areas in the entire country to enact a fiscal disparities law.

DEREK THOMPSON: They take half the growth of business income taxes in the metro area, and they spread it across the region. What this does is, it allows the less rich communities in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area to share in the commercial wealth of the entire city.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much does the city of Saint Paul right now depend on that formula to stay fiscally strong?

CHRIS COLEMAN: It is absolutely a critical piece of the funding for the city of Saint Paul. Two-thirds of our revenues go to police officers, firefighters, other public safety services. If we lost that revenue-sharing piece of it, it would be very difficult for us to maintain those levels of public safety.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In addition, in the 1970s, the Minnesota legislature was also one of the few in the country to focus on integration in public housing.

MYRON ORFIELD: For 15 years we built 70 percent of our low-income housing in the whitest part of suburbia, in the whitest neighborhoods.

DEREK THOMPSON: And they did a really good job of making sure that ghettos weren’t congealing, because they were not concentrating all of the affordable housing in a couple areas.

MYRON ORFIELD: Well, there was a shared prosperity in the Twin Cities for every racial group probably up and through the mid-’80s.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, decades ago, the region was less than 5 percent minority. Today, it has grown to 20 percent. In addition to African-Americans and Hispanics, the area is now home to the largest Somali and Hmong populations outside of Somalia and Vietnam.

MYRON ORFIELD: Starting in the late 1980s, we allowed our civil rights laws to lapse, like much of the country did.

JUDY WOODRUFF: After a decade of a fair share housing policy, in 1986, Democrats who controlled the statehouse and governorship, stepped back from it.

MYRON ORFIELD: Our patterns of segregation are still half the national average. They’re still better, but we’re not what we once were.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is it like to live in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area?

SONDRA SAMUELS, CEO, Northside Achievement Zone: Depends on who you are…


SONDRA SAMUELS: … what your race is, what your economic level is, what your educational level is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sondra Samuels is president & CEO of the Northside Achievement Zone, an educational nonprofit focused on ending multigenerational poverty in North Minneapolis.

SONDRA SAMUELS: It’s a tale of two cities. It really is. We have the highest racial unemployment gap in the entire country between people of color and white people in this state.

JUDY WOODRUFF: While Minneapolis-Saint Paul may be a top pick for millennials, the difference in opportunities between blacks and whites is one of the widest in the country.

SONDRA SAMUELS: We have a 47 percent four-year high school graduation rate for African-American students. And, statewide, it’s like 86 percent for white students. Homeownership, 76 percent for white families, and 34 percent for African-Americans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So my question is, is the American dream really attainable here?

MYRON ORFIELD: In North Minneapolis, and in the very poor pockets of segregation that are growing, the American dream is falling further away than it has ever been before.

JUDY WOODRUFF: By 2040, the minority population is expected to grow to at least 40 percent. And local leaders say the racial disparity in education, opportunity and income must be addressed if Fortune 500 companies are to continue to come and thrive.

SONDRA SAMUELS: They’re not here for our beachfront property. They are here because we have historically had the most educated work force. And when you look at who our work force will be by 2040, they are not being educated in an equitable way. And so we won’t have a work force that our region needs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In a popular eatery not far from City Hall, we asked a group of millennial nursing students their opinion of the Twin City metro area.

WOMAN: Even though it is majority white, there is something that you can find, whether you are black, white, different cultures, different sexual orientations. Everyone is welcome.

WOMAN: I’m an immigrant. I’m from West Africa. Two years ago, I was able to afford my own home. Minnesota was able to incorporate my education from Africa here, so that I could pursue my dream.

SONDRA SAMUELS: I love Minneapolis. That’s why I can be caringly candid around the places where we have got to come together and change this thing for people.

CHRIS COLEMAN: We are far from perfect. We have some huge challenges in this community. But we have a base upon which to build that I think will allow us to deal with issues of racial disparities, for instance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, many metro areas in the U.S. are dealing with the same challenges the Twin Cities are, growing racial inequities, even as economies flourish.

Derek Thompson believes that, if solutions are to be found, they won’t come from Washington.

DEREK THOMPSON: The future of public policy is going to come out of the state and the local level. And given the fact that Minneapolis-Saint Paul has an exceptional record, not only on building income, building wealth, but also sharing wealth and creating opportunities for upward mobility, we should pay more attention to cities like it if we want to replicate that formula across the country.


This report was produced by Sydney Trattner and Francois Bringer, with consulting producer Mark Carter.