The economics of dignity, how a tiered economy tears us apart

This 1941 image of a Hibbing miner portrays the dignity of a man with purpose, a noble goal for all. (U.S. Interior Dept.)

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

To read the local papers, a visitor might conclude that the biggest problems facing the Iron Range these days is whether or not we support our most powerful industry *enough.*

I find this curious. Because when people talk about “the problem on the Range these days,” they usually mean people working multiple jobs to pay rent, trying to raise kids as single parents, crime, addiction, health, declining school enrollment and reduced traffic downtown. Small businesses struggle while corporation chains rule. People who live in nice houses in the country are fine; people in Kerr Location, Nett Lake or Keewatin pray their old cars survive the winter.

A couple hundred permanent jobs on one side of the Mesabi Iron Range will not single-handedly reverse these conditions. Not even with the construction boom or the vaunted “spin-off economy.” Because our current mines have spin-off effects, too, and the problems remain.

Let’s assume PolyMet is built, for instance, and runs consistently for its 20-year mine plan. Who will work there? Mining is an increasingly technological field, requiring detailed training. More likely than not, the people hired will be college-educated or highly experienced. Veteran miners from around the Iron Range (or country, or world) will find their way into the workforce, along with a batch of college educated younger employees.

That’s great! But when we look at the totality of our problems on the Iron Range, these numbers are not enough to replace the same such jobs lost over the past 40 years, putting us in this position. Nor do we even begin to prevent the booms and busts that have plagued our mining economy since shovel first touched hematite.

No, I’m not talking about “switching to tourism.” Because tourism and mining money alike rarely finds its way to the people who need the most help. Over time, we see how this creates not just lasting challenges in local employment, but a permanent scar on our whole culture.

The economic problem here goes beyond mining. And it goes beyond the Iron Range. It can only be addressed by naming economic diversification and community stability as our shared priority. Let the miners mine and take the tourists money, but we must better use our time.

The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) reports that less than one-third of Minnesota job openings require education or training beyond high school. The median wage for these jobs is $12 an hour, $3 less than what research shows is necessary to support a family. Forty-four percent of the openings are part time, which means you have to piece them together to get to a full time wage.

An Oct. 11 story by Mya Frazier in Bloomberg Business Week details the rise of stores like “Dollar General” across rural America. After big retailers like Wal-Mart pick off struggling locally-owned stores, dollar store retailers come in and finish the job. And at some point, the smallest towns are glad they have a dollar store because they wouldn’t have any stores without one. Where once hundreds might have worked in retail, now only a few dozen low wage workers remain.

Hibbing’s largest employer is its hospital, not its mine. The medical field is growing fast. But here, too, companies find ways to staff facilities with lower cost employees over better-trained nurses.

Who stands up for the CNAs, the service workers, the retail workers, the non-union laborers? These are the majority of our population, and they have no party, no guild, and often, no sympathy at all.

Our economy, aided by indifference within our culture, creates and sustains a permanent underclass of Americans. It’s as true here on the Mesabi Iron Range as it is big cities or small farming towns. Meanwhile, everyone unaffected by those conditions rationalizes why *they* deserve a living wage and promise of education and retirement while the others don’t.

Speaking as someone who wiggled out of this condition (back when college was more affordable), I can tell you that hard work must be accompanied by luck and nurturing to truly escape the chains of poverty. And by definition, only so many people can flee through the tiny escape hatches.

Hibbing’s own Bob Dylan wrote a song called “Dignity.”

Fat man looking in a blade of steel
Thin man looking at his last meal
Hollow man looking in a cotton field
For dignity.

Wise man looking in a blade of grass
Young man looking in the shadows that pass
Poor man looking through painted glass
For dignity.

Dylan concludes:

So many roads, so much at stake
So many dead ends, I’m at the edge of the lake
Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take
To find dignity

The imperative of our times, both here on the Mesabi, and elsewhere is to seek dignity for our whole population. That means the ability to recognize our inherent self-worth. That means that we must seek economic solutions that lift people up, not tear down those we disagree with, or condemn those who don’t share in the prosperity.

Dignity for all. It does not seem so radical an idea, and yet it is.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



  1. The guy in the picture reminds me of George Eastman – “To my friends, my work is done – Why wait?”

  2. Erin Ningen says

    Wow. Great observation. The difference in the dignity with which poor vs rich are treated is the real divide in America today. They don’t keep statistics on the economic background of police shooting victims, but I would guess the % would be higher for poor folks than even the racial disparity.

    • Clear your head Erin…Are you telling me, Crooked Hillary, who claims she’s “dead broke” (that’d be real poor) is not treated with undeserving dignity, while Trump who admittedly claims to be worth billions (that’d be really rich), is treated with high dignity? Where have you been the past 24 months?
      p.s. Plus…99.9% of those shot by police are not victims, they’re criminals. You’re really confused..

  3. One of the problems is that dignity is- so often by so many-measured in dollars and education level. Interesting thoughts.

  4. Tom Garmaker says

    This blogger is a real doom and gloom liberal who has no concept on how Hibbing “Iron Range” mining was conceived and outlasted the grim reaper! Even Bob’s song, “Dignity” was a product of the lowest spiritual moments of the early taconite days, there is no reason to be writing the obituary just yet, as it appears the good Lord is going to give our “Iron Range”, a second chance of ultimate success!!

    • I sensed the same tone Tom…which is why the Eastman Kodak story came to mind. Kodak once employed over 145,000 people, down to now around 5,000. That’s where the difference ends though. Kodak didn’t embrace new technology and it killed ‘em. The Range is using, and developing, new technologies to survive…and gets beat up as if they’re doing something evil.

    • Right on.

  5. independant says

    The twenty year figure always given for dramatic effect regarding Polymet exists because that is the papered duration that the mining permit is valid, not how long the mine can remain open due to available resources. The nature of mining employment has changed since the 1970’s. Please take note and understand the modern relationship between contractors and mining companies. Mining and processing plants now utilize contractors and vendors for much of their needs. These jobs are not included in the direct numbers thrown around when speaking about Polymet, Twin Metals, etc. I agree with you completely on diversifying the economy but we will never be successful if it is an us vs. them battle of economic development. It cannot be only mining development in the same way it cannot be anything but mining development. We are a natural resource based region, fact. We are not a hub of rail or highway transportation and it will always be a struggle to compete with areas that do not face that same reality. If we promote new utilization of natural resources responsibly like copper, timber (new chemical extraction technology) we can diversify even within the natural resources sector. I also agree that support of these ventures cannot come at a cost of not pursuing non natural resource based economic development. If we agree that economic development for our region and economic improvement for our friends and neighbors should be priority number one then lets stop fighting to stop all new mining projects and pipelines and instead fight together to support all economic opportunities for the area. Anything less than an all of the above approach to Iron Range economic development is foolish and takes opportunities away from those who need it the most.

  6. It’s funny how this discussion always ends up at the same train station.
    @Tom — I’m a fifth generation Iron Ranger who has studied the history of the iron mining and taconite industries quite closely. I’ve written a book about these subjects, and speak on the topic frequently. It’s BECAUSE I have studied the industry and its trends that I am concerned for Iron Range communities. Not because mining won’t survive, but because the industry’s efficiency has caused it to no longer employ a sufficient economic base for our communities. I actually want a better future for the kids on the Range. “Gloom and doom” is what you hear at the gas stations and coffee shops. I’d like to do something about it.
    @Ranger — I’m all for the new technology. I’d like to see PolyMet use their reverse osmosis technology because I think the development will make all mining operations cleaner. I think the taconite industry will benefit from this technology. If you want to prove the environmentalists wrong, don’t yell at them, just prove it works. The technology we REALLY need, however, are refinement technologies to making higher grade metal products here on the Range. We need to capture more of the supply chain — value-added iron chief among them. No shortage of industry types talking about this, but without investment it will not happen. To those with the power to do something on this front, I say PUT UP.
    @Indy — We’ve had this conversation before. I literally wrote “Let the miners mine” in this piece. I talk about how the new jobs would be “great!” I used an exclamation point! But that’s not enough, is it? I’m well aware of how the mines have begun using vendors for more functions — repair and maintenance, construction of specialized equipment, janitorial services and security, etc. And yes, that “hides” some aspects of the operations in the employment numbers. But I would stress that the iron ore industry is doing better RIGHT NOW than it has in several years. It’s hard to imagine it going much better RIGHT NOW than we see, and yet all of the problems I identify in this piece remain. Low enrollments. Aging demographics. Hard to support local businesses, etc. That’s not mining’s “fault,” so much as it’s a characteristic of a modern mining economy. What I’m trying to do is get this region to stop fixating on a 1960s/’70s “Taconite Boom” mentality. It won’t happen like that ever again. We quickly learned that the boom was an illusion as the economic realities set in beginning in the 1980s. When I say we need economic diversification, that will require some specific action toward that goal. That goal, as you point out, DOES NOT EXCLUDE MINING. But, for a time, we will have to spend time and money on pursuits OTHER THAN MINING. Otherwise it’s not economic diversification, but rather propagandizing and wishful thinking that the industry will again “rescue” a region that cannot be rescued in such a manner.

    Stop fighting straw men. Stop fighting. Do shit that makes our towns better. That is all I have to say today.

  7. Bravo, Aaron !!

  8. independant says

    I actually “Do shit that makes our towns better”. I put my money where my mouth is every day.

  9. Kristina ANderson says

    hmmm… well I read the piece first in the Hibbing newspaper (yes, I am old-fashioned that way) & sought out a place to contact Aaron. I know Aaron has a good heart, I recall how well he coached our two kids at HHS in the Speech teams, and we’ve had some thought-provoking and honest conversations. While we don’t agree on every aspect of HOW the problem is to be solved, or even approached, we do agree that it needs solving. Some of the things we can do (& IMHO ought to do), is to be less “clique-ish” and exclusive here. I speak from experience. I was/am an inventor, and I obtained a patent & had brought my invention past the point of “it’s a moneypit” & to the point of breaking even, & to the point where I needed to lease an office and hire people because I couldn’t keep up with orders. I went to the Hibbing Economic Development Authority (Dwayne Northagen) and asked for funding so I could expand and hire people. I was interviewed, but he never did a thing …very puzzling. I never even got feedback. He simply returned the business plan I had left with him at his request, with no comment, not even a Post-it note. Nothing. I am not the only one he did this with. And yes, i worked with the SBA and no, they were not very helpful. I can’t help wondering if I had been born here, would the response have been different?…now I am pursuing another invention, and it’d be sweet to have it manufactured here on Da Range….but we will have to see where I get backing. So, that’s one thing that needs to change: the internal attitude that “we don’t like, trust or want newcomers.” Each generation is more friendly than the previous, but the Old Boys still run the show and will for another 15-30 years I expect. (There ya go, Tom, a bit of gloom-&-doom to go with your mid-morning coffee. You’re welcome.) ……….The second thing on my mind is the da– taxes; THAT is something that probably could be solved at the State Legislature level (hey, Mr. Nolan, are you listening?). Specifically, property taxes on rental properties are TEN TIMES what they are on homestead properties. Ten times! Is it any wonder that people who are renters, struggle to make ends meet ??? My daughter lives frugally, works full-time and still sells her plasma to make ends meet. I’m firmly anti-Socialism, but this has to change.

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