Maureen Ramirez, Growth & Justice, February 19, 2012 –
Angela Glover Blackwell is one of the nation’s leading voices on poverty and inequality, and her national think tank, PolicyLink, provides a wealth of data and best practices for moving people out of poverty, and improving lives for middle- and lower-income households, and communities of color.
Blackwell was in Minnesota recently, promoting PolicyLink’s America’s Tomorrow report on equity, and she was featured on MPR talking about poverty in America. She made the points, among others, that the vast majority of Americans have no idea how hard it is to get out of poverty, and that more equitable nations are outperforming us economically.
The MPR segment included an inspiring call-in from a Lakeville woman who described how the more generous safety net benefits of the 1970s saved her family and helped her to go to college, and she decried the shredding of those benefits and their reduced purchasing power in recent years.
Blackwell’s equity-driven economic model is not just a pipe dream, or a sentimental wish list. It exists as a real life example in places like Finland, which has one of the world’s stronger economies, high incomes and standard of living, an innovative workforce, and leading socio-economic indicators.
In the 70’s, Finland wasn’t so much beset by poverty as it was concerned about how to redesign its education system to move into the knowledge-based economy. Finland chose equity as its educational policy goal, not competition.
Finland’s results on the PISA, an international reading, math and science survey conducted by the OECD, rank among the very best in the world. And this is from a system that promoted cooperation among schools, high teacher pay, and equality over high-stakes test scores, competition and “choice.” A fascinating recent article in The Atlantic magazine explains Finland’s success and concludes that “the problem facing education in America isn’t the ethnic diversity of the population but the economic inequality of society, and this is precisely the problem that Finnish education reform addressed.”
While comparisons between Finland and the United States as a whole may be like comparing lingonberries to fruit salad, a comparison of Finland to Minnesota is particularly useful to our policy conversations. Finland’s population is 5.4 million; Minnesota’s is 5.3 million. Finland is becoming more diverse than most people realize and its foreign-born population is 4.6% of the country. Minnesota’s foreign-born population is 6.7% of the state.
FInland created an equitable system based on the idea that every child, in any city, from any family and any income should have the same educational experience, from birth on. Minnesota can match the rhetoric on equal opportunity. And we actually stood out as a model of equity among the states until a couple decades ago. But we can’t match the results lately and disparities by race and income on educational attainment and achievement are among the worst in the nation.
The lesson from Finland and from leaders like Blackwell on the payoff from elevating equity in order to achieve growth is becoming part of a larger conversation. And PolicyLink’s mantra, that equity is the superior growth model, is catching on as a defining principle for economic and education policy.
P.S. I’m the new policy and research director at Growth & Justice and I’m thrilled to be working for an organization that is focused so clearly on advancing equity (also known as economic justice) as the superior growth model. I bring to this job my experience as a current member of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents; as a former executive director of the CaptiolRiver Council in St. Paul (a downtown council that advises the city on planning issues); as a former director of the Minnesota Civic Engagement Table; and as a former coordinator of the Minnesota Participation Project at the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits.