Legislators look for ways to end poverty in Minnesota

"There are teen pregnancy programs, drug and alcohol programs, but people have to use them. Schools can only do so much. " -- Gregory Gray, director, Minnesota Commission to End Poverty

Minnesota’s 9.2 percent poverty rate, which counts the number of peole without enough money to pay for basic needs, is lower than the nation’s 12.3 percent. But the rate is higher for Minnesota children and young adults. Eleven of every 100 Minnesotans younger than 18 live in poverty, as do 19 of every 100 Minnesotans between 18 and 24.

To determine what policies could end poverty in Minnesota by 2020, a legislative commission is now gathering information and ideas from Minnesotans at public meetings across the state. At the end of this year, the commission will bring its recommendations to the Minnesota Legislature.

To find out about the commission’s work, ThreeSixty reporter Alexandra Sifferlin with commission director Gregory Gray, who grew up poor in Minneapolis and formerly represented North Minneapolis in the legislature.

What is the goal of the commission?

The name of the Commission explains that we want to end poverty by 2020. We want to come up with recommendations for a report at the end of this year. The goal is to use these recommendations to alleviate or end poverty in the next 12 years. These recommendations are not just for the state governments, but the federal government, local, for-profit organizations and non-profit organizations. The project needs the concerted effort of different parties.

Tell us a little bit more about the commission.

The commission is half Republicans and half Democrats. It is a bipartisan commission. The idea behind the date (2020) is so we don’t have a report that flounders. What it does is take to end poverty in a given amount of time? It is a way of holding the commission and its members accountable.

What has the commission been doing so far?

There are two different approaches. First, we have monthly meetings where we bring in experts such as the state demographer, the head of welfare, Catholic Charities, superintendents of schools. We know there are certain things that affect poverty like education, teen pregnancy, chemical addiction, health consequences and the race issue. We are still figuring out the statistical information. We have also traveled to all parts of Minnesota and have had eight listening tours to talk to people in poverty. We went to a soup kitchen in Duluth, the Red Lake Indian Reservation to talk to tribal leaders. We have talked to people in poverty and people working directly with those in poverty. It helps put a face to the numbers.

Where does Minnesota stand when it comes to poverty?

We have the eighth lowest poverty rate in the nation. We have high home ownership. But if you go to the pockets, there are significant disparities in the given regions. Minnesota’s poverty rate is low because our parents and grandparents put great emphasis on education. We have some of the best public schools in the nation. Until very recently, Minnesota was very homogeneous white, and not having the racial mix padded the numbers. If Minnesota had a racial make-up similar to the nation… it would be the 23rd instead of the 8th. The changes in economic development, a diverse economic base, manufacturers, agriculture, tourism and all these factors are changing so now we are struggling more than we did in the past.

Is the commission doing anything for young people?

There will be a strong set of recommendations geared toward young people. If we are going to end poverty we need to stop people from falling into poverty which means young people. There are teen pregnancy programs, drug and alcohol programs, but people have to use them. Schools can only do so much. When these students go home they may go home to substandard housing, abusive families, and lack of technology. We have to stabilize family life and focus on their life.

Why does Minnesota have high poverty rates among minorities?

There is a lot of good news in Minnesota that we are doing better when it comes to poverty. The bad news is that in poverty by race we have the largest disparities, the largest incarceration rates. Why is does this take place? I’m not sure I can answer that. I’m not sure anyone can. We accept it as a fact that these disparities exist as a commission. Educational opportunities are not as good, and we will continue to explore that and see what we can do.

What about college students dealing with finances?

There are not a whole lot of curriculums on personal financial management. Many people don’t look at their interest rates, they don’t know how to write a check, balance a checkbook. Financial literacy is much lower that it should be and it used to be. We need to raise awareness of how the financial system of this nation works.

What kind of poverty do you see in suburbs?

Poverty in the suburbs is statistically lower, but there is still poverty. This is mainly people whose incomes are fixed like the elderly. But property values continue to rise and there are burdens for these people when there are more fees. Many people in the suburbs will try to keep up the façade of having higher incomes.

What has surprised you about your research?

What surprised me was rural poverty, the level of rural poverty and the differing attitudes about poverty. There is more of a stigma in Greater Minnesota to being poor. People in the city are more used to it. But if you go to small towns there’s a sense of isolation. If they admit they are poor, people see it as a personal failure—you didn’t work hard enough, what’s wrong with you? Transportation is also an issue. Unless you have a car you are isolated from 99 percent of jobs. If you do have a car, the gas prices are significant if you are poor. Attitudes in Greater Minnesota tend to be more conservative, more focused on personal responsibility. Churches and faith groups do a tremendous amount of help.

Food stamps have one of the lowest participation levels because many folks in Greater Minnesota don’t want to be seen with food stamps. It’s a big burden on us as a state. If we could get money from the food stamps, we could buy massive amounts of food to give to the food shelves. It would be a better way to utilize the federal program.

College can be very expensive, is the commission looking at that?

College at some level should be free. We set it up so you can get the highest education you need to get a job. That used to be 12th grade. That’s different now.

How did you personally get out of poverty?
The values of my family helped me. There was always an expectation to do better than my parents did. It’s not necessarily income level that dictates, but family values and personal aspirations. My father used to love to travel and he took us to see different parts of the country. I believe this helped me realize that there are things I can do outside of the neighborhood.

What advice would you give to youth in poverty?

Find some adult mentor. A mentor always makes a difference. There is a lot in the system that needs to be navigated, and it helps to have someone older to help out. There are lots of different programs to be involved in. Seek out a mentor at your school or church, meet with them, see what your options are, and set out a life plan. I believe when people sit down and make a plan, they are more likely to be successful.