Does Minnesota have a lack of "enlightened political will"?

Last Friday (September 18), the Public and Nonprofit Leadership Center sponsored a forum examining Minnesota’s history of relative prosperity and prospects for the future. Experts from the university and state government offered a somewhat bleak assessment of current trends – especially for poorer people and people of color.

One message was that Minnesota is becoming more like the rest of the nation – that is, a state once known for its relatively high investment in public education and social services is now not so different from most other states, and some indicators like dismal high school graduation rates for minority young people and high unemployment rates may be a result. At the same time, panelists offered a slew of promising solutions – for example Prof. John Adams called for significant increases in funding of postsecondary technical education; Chuck Johnson of the Minnesota Department of Human Services pointed to innovative programs led by Native American reservations.

Yet, one question continued to gnaw at me after the session, because ultimately panelists and audiences alike argued that a lack of enlightened "political will" seemed to be the real culprit in undercutting Minnesota’s prosperity, broadly defined. The implication was that academic experts and policy advocates often have a lot of good ideas and evidence about the benefits and costs of enacting or cutting back public investments, but elected officials don’t get the message from their constituents that they should be watching out for the common good.

What do you, the visitors to this blog, think? Is the real culprit a lack of communal concern among the citizenry, is it failure of academics and advocates to effectively alert lawmakers to the likely consequences of their decisions and nondecisions? Or is it something else? And depending on your answer, what is the best way to combat the problem?

Comments

Barbara,

Is there any weight to the argument that the public's support for social investment is waning as Minnesota becomes more racially heterogeneous? According to the State Demographer, in the year ending Sept 30 2005, only California received more refugee arrivals than Minnesota. (Though 2005 census data show that white Minnesotans still comprise 90%+ of the population). Much has been written about the notion that the success of social programs in Scandinavia owes much to their cultural homogeneity. As much early immigration to Minnesota was from Scandinavian and northern Europe, perhaps we also experienced a similar phenomena--that social investments were seen less as a "give-away" to the unfamiliar "other" than a true investment in oneself and one's family?

Is Minnesota slowly moving toward the other end of this spectrum? Does that increasing heterogeneity lead to a status-quo policy bias that may manifest in a "lack of political will," as you note?

Bjorn – I’ve heard this argument. Perhaps cultural homogeneity does improve willingness of a community’s citizens to invest in shared public facilities. In Minnesota, though, it may be something about Scandinavian heritage rather than homogeneity that contributed to the state’s relatively high commitment to public investment. Other types of homogeneous communities do not always follow the Scandinavian pattern.

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