The Politics of Poverty, Part 1

Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten recently wrote about the Metropolitan Council regional government and its efforts to remake the region’s demography using data collected through a “Fair Housing and Equity Assessment.”  Kersten writes,

Using these data, the council will lay out what the region’s 187 municipalities must do to disperse poverty.

Disperse poverty?  It turns out that the Met Council has mapped racially concentrated areas of poverty (RCAP) in the Twin Cities metro region.  Met Council defines an RCAP as follows,

 

Racially Concentrated Areas of Poverty (RCAP) are areas where more than 50 percent of the residents are people of color and more than 40 percent of the residents have incomes less than or equal to 185 percent of the Federal poverty line.

And where can one find such areas?  The Met Council explains,

The region’s RCAPs are clustered in its urban core and inner-ring suburbs.  Central cities such as Minneapolis and St. Paul and inner suburban areas such as Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park, Richfield, and Fort Snelling include census tracts that are RCAPs.

As a companion to the RCAP map, the Met Council’s map of “opportunity clusters” shows areas that may prove more favorable to those citizens trapped in pockets of poverty.  The Met Council ranks areas on a range of criteria including access to jobs, quality schools, safe and clean neighborhoods, and social services.  The Council then color codes each area into Green, Yellow, and Blue zones, as follows,

The green cluster includes census tracts with high access to jobs and services, high exposure to pollutants, high crime rates, and low-performing schools.

Census tracts in the yellow cluster have moderate access to jobs and services, moderate exposure to pollutants, moderate levels of crime, and average schools.

The blue cluster is characterized by high-performing schools, low exposure to pollutants, low crime rates, and low access to jobs and services.

So it turns out that there is no such thing as a perfect area.  Each zone represents a trade-off between access to jobs and the quality of schools.  As it happens, all of the RCAP’s are located within either Yellow or Green zones, but never within a Blue zone.

Since the Met Council’s indexing—on jobs, social services, crime, pollutants, and schools—does not produce a common denominator to explain the geography of poverty, perhaps other forces are at work.

As an experiment, I overlaid this map of the district boundaries of the Minnesota House of Representatives on top of the Met Council’s map of areas of poverty.  I found some interesting patterns.

It turns out that every RCAP is represented by a Democrat in the state’s House of Representatives.  A given poverty area may differ from another in access to jobs, the quality of the local public schools, or the crime rate, but they all are represented by members of the state’s Democrat-Farmer-Labor party.  Not any part of any RCAP is represented by a Republican in the state House.

Digging a bit deeper, more patterns begin to emerge.  Blogger Tony Petrangelo of the liberal website Left.mn has done the hard work of calculating a partisan voting index (PVI) for all 134 Minnesota House districts.  Simply put, an index of “even” (as is the case for my Edina district) indicates that the district’s voters do not display a tendency to vote for either Republicans or Democrats.  An index of R+1 or higher indicates that the district leans to the right.  An index of D+1 or higher, indicates that the district leans to the left.

The higher the index number, the less likely it is that the district will be represented by someone from the opposite party.  According to Petrangelo, at present no Republicans represent areas rated D+1 or above in the state House.  Several Democrats represent R-rated districts, including one Democrat representing a district rated R+6.

As it turns out, using Petrangelo’s voting index, the metro’s poverty areas rank among the most Democrat-voting areas in the state.  Here are some details on the House members that represent RCAP’s, moving geographically from the northwest metro toward the southeast.

Mike Nelson represents an RCAP located within the suburb of Brooklyn Part.  Rep. Nelson’s district is rated D+15, and he has represented the area since his first election in 2002.  Nelson is Chairman of the House’s Government Operations Committee.

Debra Hilstrom represents two RCAP areas located within the suburb of Brooklyn Center.  Rep. Hilstrom’s district is rated D+16, and she has represented the area since her first election in 2000.  Hilstrom is Chair of the House’s Judiciary Finance and Policy Committee.

Joe Mullery represents an RCAP area located in the northwest corner of Minneapolis.  Rep. Mullery’s district is rated D+32, and he has represented the area since his first election in 1996.  Mullery is Chairman of the House’s Early Childhood and Youth Development Policy Committee.

Raymond Dehn represents a large RCAP area located in north Minneapolis.  He was elected in 2012, and the district is rated D+31. 

Phyllis Kahn represents part of an RCAP located near downtown Minneapolis.  She was first elected in 1972, and the district is rated D+30.  Rep. Kahn is Chair of the House’s Legacy Committee.

Karen Clark represents a large RCAP area located in south central Minneapolis.  She was first elected in 1980, and the district is rated D+40, the most Democrat-leaning and most partisan district in the state.  Rep. Clark is Chair of the House’s Housing Finance and Policy Committee.

Linda Slocum represents an RCAP area located within the suburb of Richfield.  She was first elected in 2006, and this district is rated D+13.

Jean Wagenius represents an RCAP located in the Fort Snelling area, near the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.  She was first elected in 1986, and this district is rated D+24.  Rep. Wagenius is the Chair of the House’s Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee.

Rena Moran represents an RCAP area located in western St. Paul.  She was first elected in 2010, and the district is rated D+35.

Carlos Mariani represents RCAP areas located in St. Paul.  He was first elected in 1990, and the district is rated D+28.  Mariani is Chairman of the House’s Education Policy Committee.

John Lesch represents an RCAP area located in northern St. Paul.  He was first elected in 2002, and the district is rated D+27.  Lesch is Chairman of the House’s Civil Law Committee.

Tim Mahoney represents RCAP areas located in eastern St. Paul.  He was first elected in 1998, and the district is rated D+24.  Rep. Mahoney is Chairman of the House’s Jobs and Economic Development Finance and Policy Committee.

Sheldon Johnson represents a small RCAP area located in St. Paul.  He was first elected in 2000, and the district is rated D+23.  Rep. Johnson is the Chair of the House’s Labor, Workplace and Regulated Industries Committee.

The metro’s region’s poverty areas are represented by Democrats in districts that are strongly Democrat-leaning.  With such partisan strength, Democrats elected from these districts are able to accumulate the seniority needed to assume the leadership of powerful House committees.

Indeed, the region’s RCAP’s are represented by committee chairs directly covering all of the Met Council’s critical subject matters: housing, jobs, schools, crime, pollution, and social services.

Now we come to the chicken/egg question:  do voters in RCAP’s vote for Democrats because they are so mired in poverty, or are RCAP’s so mired in poverty because they vote for Democrats?

What are we to make of the fact that the Met Council has identified no area of poverty that is represented by a Republican?

I will say this: if you are an elected official that has represented an area for one, two, three, or four decades, and your district is still mired in poverty, you have failed as a lawmaker.

So here’s a thought experiment: what would happen if one of these areas were to defy their double-digit partisan leanings and actually elect a Republican representative?  Based on recent results, they could hardly do worse.

In Part 2, we will examine the politics behind the Met Council’s plan to disperse poverty.

Cross-posted and comments welcome at Bill Glahn.