Opinion
Performing Philanthropy

Minnesota's Vital Signs

The state’s changing demographics fuel the work of Minnesota Compass, which helps nonprofits identify trends.

Minnesota's Vital Signs

Minnesota’s population is aging—and also growing, thanks to an influx of immigrants. But the state’s workforce is not expanding rapidly enough to keep pace with projected job growth. Those are key takeaways from the recent Minnesota Compass annual meeting, where community leaders learned how the state is doing, measured by 12 indicators of civic health. Those include “cradle-to-career success for all Minnesota youth, a strong and vibrant economy and workforce, and healthy communities across the state.”

Housed in the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation in St. Paul, Minnesota Compass tracks, presents and interprets data on key factors influencing social and economic outcomes for Minnesotans. Its work is available through a central, free, constantly updated and easy-to-navigate portal.

The Compass annual meeting gives businesses and nonprofits the opportunity to hear directly from researchers, ask questions, and discuss findings over lunch with other civic-minded colleagues. It’s a bit of a geek fest, drawing the quantitative-research brain trust from across the nonprofit sector, including leaders in philanthropic, social service, educational, and cultural organizations. This year’s meeting highlighted the following trends, some of which seem exceptionally timely given conversations about policy shifts in immigration, taxes and health care taking place in Washington, D.C. Key points:

  • Foreign-born residents are leading Minnesota’s population growth. Since 2000, the state’s population overall grew 12 percent, while the population of immigrants grew 76 percent. More than three in four Minnesota immigrants live in the seven-county Twin Cities metropolitan region; however, Nobles County is reported to have the highest proportion of immigrants among Minnesota counties. (If you’re sketchy on your Minnesota counties, Nobles is in southwest Minnesota and includes the city of Worthington.)
  • Minnesota’s population is aging, but rates differ by county. Compass’ data shows that since 2000, Minnesota’s population of older adults has increased substantially, from 594,000 to 806,000, and this trend is accelerating. Older adults are more highly clustered in counties outside the Twin Cities metro, with Aitkin County in the northern lakes region the highest, at 31 percent. Scott County in the metro has 9.6 percent.
  • Poverty rates dipped. Minnesota’s poverty rate declined by more than a percentage point in 2015, which correlates to 65,000 fewer people living in poverty. Decreases were highest in the Twin Cities, northern Minnesota and the West Central regions.
  • Minnesota’s employment pipeline needs more workers. By 2024, Minnesota’s employers are expected to have 3.1 million jobs. However, Compass data shows that, at current rates, there will be only 2.7 million workers to fill them. Progress is needed in efforts to ensure that the workforce development pipeline aligns with the skills employers need most. Focus is also needed on educational attainment for all Minnesota youth so that they will be ready to benefit from the economic opportunities that lie ahead.

Trends associated with immigration, aging and workforce supply present an array of challenges and opportunities for public policymakers and private businesses. Keeping the residents we have and drawing new people to Minnesota are important to our future economic vitality. The expanding numbers of older adults will mean new strategies to meet the demands on our state’s programs and services, including health care and transportation. Finally, prosperity is increasing as the economy improves and more people take advantage of economic growth.

Leaders from the nonprofit sector gathered at the Wilder Foundation in St. Paul to learn about demographic trends at the Minnesota Compass annual meeting.

Yet in terms of racial equity, our state has a long way to go. Educational outcomes for Minnesota youth remain low, and glaring gaps for people of color are reported, according to several of Minnesota’s key indicators or “Compass Points.” Only 57 percent of children in third grade test as proficient in reading, and only 58 percent test as proficient in math in eighth grade. While graduation rates inched up, to 82 percent, the overall numbers mask enormous disparities between students of color and their white peers. Poverty rates, home ownership rates and other key indicators document that prosperity and opportunity remain far better for our white residents. Compass speakers acknowledged that Minnesota’s indicators, considered together, make our state look pretty great—but only if you are white.

This year’s annual meeting had an unexpected speaker: Christopher Ingraham, a Washington Post data reporter who wrote in 2015 that the worst place to live in the United States is Red Lake County. He based his story on a USDA data index that rates every county in the U.S. for elements such as natural beauty and climate. Outraged local residents invited Ingraham to visit, rolled out the local welcome mat, and converted him to a true believer. He and his family moved to Red Lake County in northwestern Minnesota last year. He’s now telling stories about data, real life and how our state is changing.

Ingraham’s story is also a lesson in the applicability of data, which on its own never tells the whole story. To understand the people and communities you live in, you have to meet real people and hear their stories. Only then does the full richness of our civil society come to light.

So if you want to learn more about the trends that affect Minnesota’s civil society and economic vitality—and you should—visit mncompass.org and use its unique suite of data resources. But if you want to understand your neighbors fully, get out and meet people, and listen.

Sarah Lutman is a St. Paul-based independent consultant and writer for clients in the cultural, media and philanthropic sectors.