The Right Scale for Thinking Inequality

miracleTwo weeks ago, the Atlantic published a short (and facile) post called “the Miracle of Minneapolis” that (as is the way of media circles in insecure places) launched itself right onto the forefront of the Twin Cities social media scene. And, with good reason, the article re-kindled conversations about racial disparities that have been going on for years. 

Before I dive into my argument, I want to outline two crucial caveats. First, I love that we’re discussing racial disparities with increasing frequency these days. We have ignored the way that our cities have created wealth only for some (white) people, and made it almost impossible for others. The Fair Housing Act was only passed in the 60s, which isn’t very long ago, and we need to always remember how our cities treat people differently depending on race, class, and culture. So it’s great that every politician has to (at least pretend to) care about this crucial topic, and I’m optimistic that real changes that actually affect people’s lives might occur if we keep bringing this up.

The second caveat is that these geographies—scale, statistics, race, intra- and inter-regional comparison—are incredibly complicated, and I’m not going do them justice here. I’ll do my best, but really this is the start of a larger conversation. I’d welcome any expertise…

Synechdoche, Minnesota

I was raised as a Saint Paul-ite, which is kind of a mixed bag. One of the outcomes was that my family would take great pains to protest anytime someone referred to the place we were from as “Minneapolis.”

“SAINT PAUL!”…would be the immediate reply.

(This happened often on airplane trips, where the captain would welcome everyone to Minneapolis much to my father’s chagrin.)

A similar thing happens with the discussion of disparities in the Twin Cities, where people will slip back and forth between meaning Minneapolis-the-city and Minneapolis-the-metro-area when discussing inequality.

Here’s an example from a recent article here on about inequality in pre-natal care:

People like to rave about the virtues of Minneapolis in our cherished national media sources. Minneapolis is great for millennials, Minneapolis has low unemployment, we are healthy, we have great parks, or we are basically a “miracle”. On the other hand, Minneapolis is the city with the largest racial unemployment disparity, and one of the worst racial poverty disparities, and we also have a huge racial disparity in low-level arrests.

Actually clicking on the links above, you find studies that slip between geographic scales when measuring inequality: the racial unemployment disparity refers to the Twin Cities MSA, the racial poverty disparities refer to the 7-county metro area, and only the disparity in arrests refers to actual city-scale data.

This isn’t to pick on Ryan’s excellent article, just to point out how easy it is to make these scalar slips. The Atlantic’s “Miracle of Minneapolis” piece doesn’t really discuss the city of Minneapolis at all, but is rather about how the region as a whole offers home ownership and economic opportunity. (Sample sentence: “The Minneapolis–St. Paul metro area is richer by median household income than Pittsburgh or Salt Lake City (or New York, or Chicago, or Los Angeles).”) “Minneapolis” ends up a synecdoche (a part that stands in for the whole) for the 3.5 million people that live in the Twin Cities area, a convenient shorthand that glosses over some crucial differences…not least of which is the existence of Saint Paul.

Inequalities in tax base in the Twin Cities, from Orfield's American Metropolitics.

Property tax capacity per household in the Twin Cities, 2004. From Orfield’s book Region.

Existing Regional Inequality

most-equal-citiesThe “Minneapolis” that the Atlantic was really talking about was the Twin Cities suburbs. Our metro area sprawls out for miles, culs-de-sac filling the horizon with nice new homes and good schools. And as a region, we generally rank as one of the least unequal metros in the country, at least according to GINI coefficient (which measures wealth concentration).

But within the region, the inequality between suburbs is striking. To offer just one example, the average per capita income of Mendota Heights, Minnesota’s #11th most wealthy city (and the place I grew up) is $49,589; just three miles away, in Saint Paul (where I live now), the average is $20,216. These gaps have all sorts of huge impacts on things like tax base, policing, and most especially school funding.

Looking at inequality within a city is always going to be important, and we shouldn’t take our eyes off the way that Southwest Minneapolis and North Minneapolis (or southwest Saint Paul and the East Side of Saint Paul) are treated differently by city government. But those inequalities pale in comparison to the difference between the core cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul and our wealthy suburbs (Plymouth, Eden Prairie, Woodbury, etc. etc. etc.).

Race dot maps for 3 midwestern cities

Race dot maps for 3 midwestern cities (TC, CHI, DET).

Some Unique things about Minneapolis


Race dot maps for TC, MKE, and Denver. See full map here.

Making intra-urban comparisons between Minneapolis is also challenging because of the ways that regions differ from each other. As Nick recently pointed out, defining what is and isn’t an MSA is never an exact science, particularly when you’re looking at the massive urban agglomerations on the coasts. Like Denver or Salt Lake City (and I suppose Dallas, Kansas City, St. Louis), the Twin Cities are regionally isolated, and tail off in every direction without much inter-urban competition.

Another obvious difference is that the Twin Cities region is less diverse than coastal or southern metros, though that is changing. Connected to this fact is that we are less segregated than many other Midwestern cities…even our racially concentrated areas of poverty (a federally defined designation) lack the stark segregation that nearby metro areas like Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago, or Milwaukee have.

(Note that neither Minneapolis nor Saint Paul is not in the top 10 individual cities; the top 5 most segregated cities are Philadelphia, Chicago, New York City, Milwaukee, and Detroit. At the metro scale, the list changes slightly, but the TC is still not in the top 10.)

For example, my old neighborhood in Saint Paul, the North End neighborhood, was very poor (average household income of $32,297, and contains a lot of the RCAPS) but racially mixed. Even the places with the most extreme poverty in the Twin Cities don’t have the degree of racial segregation that you find in other cities (though that may be changing). Relative to many other cities, Minneapolis and Saint Paul proper have maintained working-class neighborhoods that have either been ‘priced out’ or hollowed out in many other cities.


Demographics for Saint Paul’s North End neighborhood, where I lived for seven years.

Don’t Forget About the Region

mpr-shoveling-mapThese differences aren’t meant to justify our racial gaps, but just to complicate the idea that comparisons are easy. A good example might be the recent MPR series of stories on inequality in snow plowing within the city of Minneapolis, they focused on geographic inequality between southwest and north Minneapolis around fines and plowing. (In Saint Paul, the conversation is often about the western half vs. the eastern half of the city…)

The unequal treatment between Kenwood (population 1,400; average household income $112,000) and Camden (population 5,074; average household income $40,000) is certainly important. But at the time, I wondered whether what the picture about city services, tax burden, and winter street quality might look like if we expanded our analysis to include Edina (population 49,300; average household income $84,000) just across the city borders? The list of top 100 US cities by household income includes Chanhassen, Eden Prairie, Andover, Lino Lakes, Maple Grove, Woodbury, Prior Lake, and Savage; is the conversation about racial inequality taking place there?


Median household income map from Minnpost.

Challenge Ourselves to Think Bigger

Looking simply at Minneapolis to study racial disparities is too easy, even if it is poetic. The real challenge is thinking about the regional inequalities which dwarf those within our cities.

This isn’t to let Minneapolis or Saint Paul off the hook. Having a serious conversation about what the city can do to address fair policing and equity within city services is crucially important, and I’ve been riveted by the recent back-and-forth between the Mayor’s office and Northside City Council Members over what kinds of solutions the city should put forth.

But I worry that fixing on urban inequalities within the city of Minneapolis will distract us from larger conversations, such as the attempt by the suburban counties (Scott County is the 34th most wealthy county in the country) to retreat from efforts to include equity in transit and transportation funding policy. I worry that we’ll lose sight of the struggle to place affordable housing in the suburbs, where so many of the excellent schools are located. I worry that focusing only on the core cities will mean ignoring the campaign to delegitimize the Metropolitan Council, which does a lot of work toward redressing regional disparities.

Equity and race should be a key issue with any discussion about urban policies. We should bring it up again and again in Minneapolis and Saint Paul discussions about how to empower people living in concentrated poverty. But we also must make sure to connect these struggling neighborhoods with the comfortably carpeted large homes in the Twin Cities suburbs, where much of the regional wealth sits.

That’s one of the reasons I loved it when the #blacklivesmatter campaign occupied 35W and held a protest at the Mall of America. Those gestures made it clear that problems of race, policing, and inequality don’t end at the Minneapolis and Saint Paul borders, but run right around the ring road into the hearts of our suburbs. Even though there’s no small amount of pushback, connecting race, inequality, and the suburbs is exactly what we need to do in the Twin Cities today if we want to raise the mantle of social justice in Minnesota.

The Mall of America rotunda is exactly where the conversation on racial disparities should be taking place.

The Mall of America rotunda is exactly where the conversation on racial disparities should be taking place.

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.