Grasping and Reducing Poverty in Minnesota: Essays in Celebration of John Brandl’s Uncommon Quest for Common Ground


Laura Bloomberg, Ph.D.


Humphrey School of Public Affairs

University of Minnesota

Fifty years ago, and just shortly before his assassination, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King launched the “Poor People’s Campaign” to shine a bright light on the economic injustices that plagued large swaths of the United States. The campaign launched just four years after President Johnson had announced in his 1964 State of the Union Address a “War on Poverty” that ultimately led to Congress passing the Economic Opportunity Act in that same year. We were a nation in economic crisis, and yet this congressional move had seemed a hopeful sign. Sadly, four years following the passage of this landmark legislation, King decried the continued lack of economic progress and the persistence of economic insecurity, particularly among people of color in this country.

Fast forward five decades to the present and earned income disparities among Americans stubbornly persist and, in some places, continue to grow at an alarming pace. The gap between the richest and poorest in our country widens, and the number of children living in extreme poverty is unacceptably high. This remains particularly true for people of color in America.

Addressing the conditions, the precursors, and the ultimate societal impact of poverty is indeed a grand challenge. This is highly complex work: the specific antecedents of poverty are numerous and often evolve over time and across generations. Addressing the impacts of poverty exceeds the resources or knowledge of any single discipline, organization, or sector. Clearly this complex endeavor defies a uniform approach. In fact, history has often shown us that single-sector or single-minded approaches yield shortsighted outcomes and, often, unintended and undesired outcomes.

In 2015 the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution joined forces to form the Working Group on Poverty and Opportunity to take a fresh look at poverty in America through a consensus-based and bipartisan lens. The 15 members of this AEI-Brookings working group met for over a year to create a consensus plan to “reduce poverty and restore the American Dream [by bridging] the partisan divide and suggesting a way forward despite the political polarization and gridlock that has paralyzed much of Washington.” The plan is grounded in contemporary data on poverty rates, mobility, education levels, employment and marriage in America today. The culminating report advances a consensus-based set of recommendations for a values-based path forward.

The AEI-Brookings working group started a bipartisan conversation that we believe is vitally important and deeply relevant in Minnesota today. Put simply: the authors and organizations represented in this compilation want to keep the focus on poverty. We want this problem solved.

Fifty years after the Poor People’s campaign, and just a few years after the AEI-Brookings report, this compilation of papers presented by some of Minnesota’s leading civic organizations does not—and is not intended to—offer definitive solutions to poverty in Minnesota circa 2018. We realize there is no unified consensus on strategy, no silver bullet to fully eliminate poverty in our state or our country. And yet similar to those involved in the AEI-Brookings working group, the authors of the essays that follow are unified in this firm belief: Addressing poverty in Minnesota and across America remains a fundamental human rights imperative of our time.

In his essay on Poverty in Minnesota, Steve Young, Executive Director of the Caux Round Table for Moral Capitalism, offers a high-level tutorial on core economic principles underlying questions of poverty reduction and accrual of wealth (defined generally as income exceeding expenses). Young outlines opportunities for poverty reduction through largely private sector capitalism and/or largely public or government sector transfer payments, and advances the argument that rarely if ever have societies achieved optimal economic outcomes without striking a balance between private sector enterprise and moderating involvement from governments. Young makes the case that we cannot consider economic or monetary capital without a commensurate focus on the social and human capital necessary to keep the full model in balance.

In his essay Mitch Pearlstein, Founder and Senior Fellow of Center of the American Experiment, begins by affirming the AEI-Brookings working group paper, commenting that “In the same spirit of bipartisanship and compromise that marked the writing of Opportunity, Responsibility, and Security, I’m happy to endorse, to one degree or another, almost everything in that excellent report.” Pearlstein goes on to advocate for a focus on the institutions marriage and two-parent child raising as central to addressing key antecedents of generational poverty. In his paper Pearlstein contrasts “conference tables,” where formal policy and politics drive the dialogue, and “kitchen tables” where societal norms, mores, values and beliefs take center stage. We would do well to recognize that the cultural elements of greatest significance to family well-being are more kitchen table than conference table in nature.

In contrast to the arguments advanced by Pearlstein, Angelica Klebsch, Policy Director of the Citizens League, challenges all of us to step back and examine the lens through which researchers, academics, policymakers and policy commentators draw conclusions and render judgments about the causes of poverty. Klebsch asserts that when value judgements are made through a lens of mainstream, middle-class, cultural majority experiences, we ignore how the privileges of environment influence choices made. The extent to which one values the institution of marriage may well be adversely affected, for example, by a war on drugs that has disproportionately resulted in the incarceration of poor young men of color, while economic mobility traditionally attained though a college education can be stifled by financial realities that can suppress the full realization of potential.

Senior Fellow and President Emeritus at Growth & Justice, Dane Smith proposes that we re-cast our thinking from poverty reduction to a broader focus on creating economic equity and eliminating the yawning disparity between the highest- level income earners and the rest of society living in poverty, near poverty, or with a substantial amount of economic insecurity. Smith outlines Growth & Justice’s forthcoming One Minnesota Equity Blueprint that, among other policy principles, challenges us to maintain an unvarnished and unwavering focus on the shameful racial inequalities that persist across the whole country, but especially in Minnesota.

As readers will note, these essays occasionally advance arguments and values that conflict with each other. Such is the nature of grappling with grand challenges in a [small “d”] democratic manner. In functioning democracies, we advance our agendas, we disagree, debate, deliberate. When we are at our best we also engage with each other across our different perspectives, we listen to others’ ideas with intention, we entertain the possibility of re-examining our own assumptions, we allow ourselves to be challenged, we get comfortable with getting uncomfortable, and we influence each other’s thinking in a collective effort to advance the common good. This was the essence of John Brandl, the incisive scholar and impactful policymaker for whom this compilation of papers is dedicated. Since Brandl’s untimely passing in 2008, the organizations represented here have honored his memory under the banner of “John Brandl’s Uncommon Quest for Common Ground” by convening politically diverse thought leaders in tribute to Brandl’s longstanding example of engaging with individuals who hold vastly different views in an effort to amplify our commonly held principles and priorities.

After holding multiple leadership roles in the Johnson Administration and serving terms in both the Minnesota House and Senate, John Brandl went on to serve the University of Minnesota as dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs from 1997 to 2002. He preceded me in this role by some 15 years. I did not know John personally when he led the School, although by that time I had come to know him well by reputation. John and I share a hometown (St. Cloud, Minnesota) and high school alma mater (St. Cloud Cathedral).

John graduated high school a quarter century before I arrived, and had already left Washington and returned to serve in the Minnesota Legislature when I was a high school freshman at Cathedral. Many of the dedicated nuns I had as high school teachers had also been John’s teachers several years earlier—and they proudly made certain we followed Brandl’s political and academic career. Although I disagreed with some of his policies at that time, I grew to appreciate his collaborative style and inclusive approach.

Years later, near the end of John’s life, I had poignant opportunities to spend time with him at the Humphrey School and compare notes on our respective childhood and high school experiences in St. Cloud. My personal memories of John Brandl will always be of a committed educator with a fierce intellect, demanding standards, strong values, a kind heart and a wry sense of humor. This is a winning combination for embarking on the all-too-uncommon quest for common ground. John set an example for us to live by.

In honoring the memory of John Brandl, we present this collection of essays to our fellow concerned community members. We present it, not as a definitive treatise on eliminating poverty, but as an evocative thought-piece to inspire consideration, dialogue, debate and – most importantly – a commitment to act. If society is ever to fully benefit from the collective capacity of all our citizens, then we must persist in our quest to address the unacceptable conditions of poverty that substantially and cruelly limit the prospects of far too many individuals and families. In 2018, fifty years after Dr. Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign, this remains a human rights imperative we simply cannot afford to ignore.

Minneapolis, MN

October 2018