GRAND FORKS—Cold and dark as it might get here, the upper Midwest has enjoyed some time in the sun with relatively strong economic fortunes and population growth.
But even in good times, racial disparities continue to undercut both Minnesota and North Dakota. The first remains one of the more divided states in the nation in terms of race, with many nonwhite residents facing worse conditions than their white peers. And North Dakota, buoyed as it was by an oil boom at a time when the national economy faltered, still isn't exempt from the racial gulfs witnessed across the rest of the country.
On the east side of the Red River, Susan Brower is the state demographer for Minnesota.
"The thing that stands out most to me is that the disparities we see—the disparities that have been with us for so long—can't be 'explained away' by immigration," Brower said in an email. "When you look at the situation of indigenous peoples and other cultural groups who have been in this country for generations, you see that the disparate outcomes remain. There are powerful social and economic structures that keep these disparities in place."
According to American Community Survey data provided by the U.S. Census, poverty rates for black, Hispanic and Native American residents remain high in both Minnesota and North Dakota. In the latter, both black and indigenous groups experience poverty at a scale about four times as great as that for white North Dakotans. Meanwhile, educational attainment rates for nonwhite populations are also lagging, particularly in the post-secondary education that has become a gateway to lucrative job prospects.
Scott Davis is the executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, the state's liaison with its sovereign tribal partners. For Davis, the poverty seen on reservation lands is tied to a lack of resources. That includes dollars provided by federal agencies as well as funds that should be flowing from local tribal economies, which Davis says are lacking in both private investment and in efficient means to gather public revenues through taxation.
"I look at the systems operated in tribal lands—we have appropriations to educate, to do health care services, and it's never been enough," Davis says, speaking to the systems as they are today, "and the funding, the resources to run those operations effectively, quite honestly probably never will be."
While racial disparities mirror a national landscape, North Dakota's demographics are somewhat unusual in that racial diversity is a newer trend. Native Americans, described by some state observers as the "traditional minority" of the state, have been surpassed in population over the past decade by the combined numbers of other groups, namely blacks and Hispanics.
In the years after 2010, those two demographics have grown significantly in the state as it has experienced a period of in-migration that has reversed what was previously a steady population decline. While the majority—54 percent—of newcomers are white, the growth period has otherwise ushered in a period of increasing diversity that echoes conditions in Minnesota and the rest of the U.S.
Black residents accounted for roughly 0.6 percent of the North Dakota population before 2010. Now, they make up nearly 3 percent of the whole.
Hispanics amounted to 1.2 percent percent of the population total in 2010, but, after a period in which North Dakota counties had some of the highest growth rates for Latino residents in the nation, the state's Hispanic population is now about 3.6 percent. However, a considerable number of the state's Latinos racially identify as white.
As other groups have increased in population, the state's Native American communities have held relatively steady, at about 5.5 percent. That is in contrast to the state's non-Hispanic white population. In 2000, these residents were estimated to make up more than 92 percent of the state population. As of 2017, whites are projected at about 85 percent.
The profiles of poverty for North Dakota and Minnesota are similar in many aspects.
Federal poverty levels are adjusted yearly and are used to calculate eligibility for public assistance programs. For 2018, the poverty level income for an individual is $12,140. Using the same scale, the income level for an impoverished family of five would be $29,420.
The 2012-16 ACS estimate gives the U.S. a national average poverty rate of 15.1 percent, when measured as the portion of individuals living below the set income levels within the past year.
Both North Dakota and Minnesota are below that average, with estimated rates of about 11.2 percent and 10.8 percent, respectively.
But those pools are spread unevenly.
On the national level, Asian Americans have the lowest poverty rates of all the census-recorded racial groups, at about 12.3 percent, though whites are almost equal at 12.4 percent.
The other major racial groups are above 20 percent—Hispanics of all racial classifications at 23.4, blacks, at 26.2, and Native Americans, the group overall most widely affected by poverty, at 27.6 percent.
North Dakota poverty rates are markedly worse for some nonwhites when compared to the country as a whole. On the Northern Plains, white individuals experience poverty at a rate of 8.7 percent. In contrast to the rest of the country, Asians in North Dakota see a poverty rate of 21.6 percent, while Hispanics actually do better than the national average with 20.3 percent. Black individuals experience a 33.9 percent poverty rate, and American Indians see 37.5 percent.
Beyond the historical legacies of European settlement, as far as Davis sees it, the intergenerational poverty that affects native people in North Dakota is deeply rooted in local economics.
In the future, he hopes to see better retention of funds on the reservations through more robust private sector investments paired with revised local tax systems.
"Our dollar leaves the reservation nine out of 10 times," he said, adding that the council estimates North Dakota tribal members generate about $2 billion in annual tax revenues. "We buy a lot of services and goods, but how many of those dollars go back to tribal land? There are ways to address these disparities, but a lot of it is in economics."
Native Americans in Minnesota face many of the same challenges as their western neighbors but, in terms of average poverty rates, are slightly better off at a total impact of 31.4 percent.
About 34 percent of black Minnesotans face poverty, compared to 8.2 percent of the state's whites. Asian individuals in Minnesota experience lower poverty rates than those in North Dakota at 16.1 percent, as do Hispanics of all races, at 22.2 percent.
Rates of educational attainment are closely tied to poverty levels—and are also uneven along racial lines, though many of the gaps between groups are less dramatic in both states.
Whites generally have the highest completion rates across educational levels from high school to graduate school, with almost 30 percent of North Dakota whites finishing four-year degrees. However, in North Dakota, Asians surpass whites by a strong margin in completion of four-year degrees, even while they lag in high school completion. In both North Dakota and Minnesota, American Indians and Hispanics have the lowest rates of completion for four-year degrees.
For Kevin Iverson, North Dakota demographics is a matter of close study. Iverson is the census office manager for the state and tracks how its population shifts over time.
Iverson mainly attributes the state's diversification to a pair of overarching factors—the western oil boom and a persistently tight labor market. As oil prices dropped, he said, many transitory white workers left the state while in-migration continued for other groups.
The question of high poverty rates, particularly for established black and Native American populations, remains a matter of study for demographers, who often point to a combination of historical legacies of racism and contemporary policies.
At least part of it, Iverson believes, is due to the overlap of race with other demographic features, such as age.
"The other thing that you find is that local minority group tend to be really young," he said, adding that median age for nonwhite residents was recently counted at about 18 years. The gaps in age can make it difficult to compare across the board. They also might provide clues to how state demographics will continue to change.
"I sometimes say it like this," Iverson said. "If you run into someone who's black in North Dakota, chances are they're young. If you run into someone who's old, they're likely white."
Even as we look forward, Brower doesn't think there's "one simple answer" for why racial disparities persist in the U.S.
"There are deep-seated historical patterns that established these inequities," she said. "They stretch back for centuries. And there are a dizzying array of ways that we keep them in place by going about our everyday lives. It doesn't mean that we can't do anything about them. Not at all. It just means we need to be willing to come to terms with what we do—intentionally and unintentionally—that allows these patterns to be reproduced."