Tuesday, May 01, 2012 By Aaron Brown
The Range is a series of small towns strung along a 135-mile ridge of iron deposits in northeastern Minnesota. Each town is autonomous, but not independent. The region functions much like a mid-sized industrial city in which the small towns are neighborhoods. But unlike a city, which is capable of electing centralized leadership to conduct centralized business, the Range has little ability to organize in a unified way. Plus, these "neighborhoods" are each separated by 2-10 miles of mines and increasingly populated rural townships, a wilderness that helps people forget the relationships shared by the towns and hide a lot of social problems.
To some degree the IRRRB, a unique state agency that handles our mining revenue (paid in lieu of property taxes), can offer direction to the Range region. To another, elected legislators can have above-average influence. Counties have a role, but there are two counties that have jurisdiction over the Range, Itasca and St. Louis. The Range cities represent a minority of the voting population of both these counties, so "the Range" has no single county outlet for its political will. The mines are titans of the local economy, but no longer involve themselves in local politics as they did decades ago.
There is an entire book to be written (and read by about 58 people) on this subject, indeed I have already tried. But the reason I bring it up today is a story by Jennifer Vogel at Minnesota Public Radio. She details the struggles facing low-income people who live on the Range who find affordable housing in one community but must then find employment and education in another. Reliable automobiles are key to survival here, though as the story shows there are some transit options. But public transit for places like this are among the litany of services the state is backing away from amid its self-inflicted, never-ending budget (read: political) crisis.
These "low-income commuters" are a central demographic on the Range, and they are getting slaughtered in the current economic and political situation. From gas prices, to weaker schools and higher tuition, to less help for child care, to fewer library hours to just about everything they touch, life has been getting worse for them for almost ten years. Bush, Obama, Pawlenty, Dayton, Oberstar, Cravaack. Doesn't matter. It just keeps going on this way.
Take a look at the Vogel story, which does convey a sense of hope for some. I'll be revisiting the urban/rural conundrum in the Range's political and economic challenges in future posts.