Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #129. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Mar. 31, 2018; in print April 1

I have often cited the ways in which the St. Cloud Area lives up to its motto: GREATER! I’ve lived here 34 years, it’s home, and a good laboratory for my column’s theme these 10+ years, “the renewal of human community.”

So, it’s a shock to my system, or at least a dash of cold water, to see results of the Ground Level Survey recently conducted by Minnesota Public Radio and APM Research Lab, published in February.

The social science credentials of the researchers are impeccable. The August-September 2017 survey of 1654 Minnesotans, more than half of them contacted by cell phone, has a margin of error of ±3.5% (90% confidence). The variety of settings in Minnesota was taken into account: rural, small town, suburban, urban. The questions ranged broadly, to assess where residents’ perspectives align and where they diverge.

The study is especially instructive for us, because the findings are analyzed not only for the state as a whole, but also for regions (north, central, and south) and for regional centers (Duluth Area, Rochester Area, and St. Cloud Area). The St. Cloud Area, with a population of about 126,800, is comprised of eight ZIP codes that cover St. Cloud, Rockville, St. Joseph, Sartell, Sauk Rapids, and Waite Park.

It is encouraging — indeed, pleasantly surprising — to learn that all three regional centers are aligned with the state as a whole (59 percent) in residents having close friends of a different race.

But further on in the Ground Level Survey, things get bleaker for us.

Sense of financial security? Those feeling not financially secure here are 19 percent of the population, as against 14 percent in the state as a whole. When asked, though, whether their personal financial situation is better now than it was a decade ago, the regional centers all mirrored the state: 53 percent said “better,” 30 percent “same,” and 16% “worse.” But “worse” in the St. Cloud Area comes to about 20,000 people. Suddenly the statistics have faces.

On the matter of trust, there is some good news: three quarters of residents of the regional centers, including St. Cloud, are in line with the rest of Minnesota in trusting the police to do what is right.

But there are other institutions for which “the St. Cloud Area is home to more residents who are skeptical about these institutions’ ability to act in a trustworthy manner.”

Medical system? 63 percent, nine points lower than state. State government? 33 percent, seven points lower. Public schools? 51 percent, 12 points lower. Big business? 28 percent, 13 points lower. News media? 39%, four points lower.

We don’t stack up particularly well when compared to Central Minnesota (mostly rural) either. Trust in the medical system, seven points behind; public schools, 13 points. We are actually five points ahead, though, in trusting state government.

On trust of organized religion, the St. Cloud Area is an outlier. Those here who trust organized religion “to do what is right just about always or most of the time” are 51 percent of the population, while Rochester, Duluth, and all Minnesotans are in the low 60 percent range. And the St. Cloud Area figure means that almost half of us “sometimes or never” trust organized religion.

This question unmasked the most dramatic difference of all between us and our surroundings. The St. Cloud Area trusts organized religion 19 percentage points below Central Minnesota as a whole.

Several questions asked whether Minnesota “is on the right or wrong track.” On all but one of these (“protecting lakes and rivers”), the St. Cloud Area has the lowest percentage who say “right track.” “Having good health care,” St. Cloud is at 60 percent vs. 67 percent all Minnesotans, and far behind Rochester and Duluth. “Providing mental health care,” 45 percent vs. 56 percent all. “Providing opportunities for everyone to get ahead,” 55 percent vs. 65 percent. “Strengthening the economy,” 56 to 69.

And then there’s the one where we are farthest behind the other regional centers and the state as a whole — way behind. Unfortunately, it’s not much of a surprise. When asked whether Minnesota is on the right or wrong track in welcoming immigrants and refugees, 39 percent in the St Cloud Area said “right,” while 57 percent of all Minnesotans, 59 percent in Rochester, and 66 percent in Duluth said so.

In too many dimensions, the St. Cloud Area is more skeptical, cynical, even grumpier than the rest of Minnesota.

Mayors, city councils, county commissioners, legislators and candidates, school boards, authorities in education and business and medicine, nonprofits, media managers (even columnists), and, especially, religious leaders, have their work cut out for them.

We have a way to go to deserve and claim our motto: GREATER! The human community here has a lot of renewing to do. Let’s get on with it.