The affordability we can’t afford

PHOTO: Woodleywonderworks, Flickr CC-BY

Americans like to argue, but seem to agree that we don’t have enough money.

The median household income in St. Louis County runs just below $58,000 a year, about $30,000 for individuals. Half make less, and these folks certainly know how hard it is to cover rising expenses. Nevertheless, candidates who support publicly funded health care, child care, and housing relief are losing local elections. Why?

John Steinbeck once wrote that Americans never took to European-style social programs because they don’t see themselves as “proletarians.” Rather, they’re just “temporarily embarrassed capitalists.”

Given that he wrote this about 90 years ago, we might begin to regard the condition as permanent. Over the past century we’ve been conditioned to assign moral value to our income, that poverty is something that can only be remedied by faith, if not to God then at least to wealthy people who know more than us. Of course they do; they’re rich!

The nature of “median” is that half make more. Some make much more. But you have to go pretty far up the income scale to find people who will admit that they’re wealthy. This is another feature of American life. Even people who make millions will tell you their expenses run too high and they don’t have money to spare. I mean, have you priced personal aircraft lately?

This does a lot to explain why people constantly think the economy is failing even when some people are making out relatively well. It’s not fair, nor is it the same everywhere you go.

An Aug. 14 Bloomberg data analysis by Claire Ballentine and Charlie Wells lets you compare your buying power in your city versus other metro areas around the country. Naturally, this comparison doesn’t delve into rural places, but the Duluth-Superior market is included in the data. This provided a reasonable stand-in for living expenses on the Iron Range.

We know that housing costs have risen in our area over the past few years. Inflation impacted prices here, just like everywhere else. And yet when you punch in the comparisons, I found that money goes farther in the Duluth market than it would in most other cities or regions in the country.

For instance, a Duluth-area household making $100,000 year would feel about $24,000 per year poorer if relocated to New York. Likewise, the same household would feel about $15,000 poorer in the Twin Cities.

Perhaps these large, more politically liberal cities are the problem? But no, even Lubbock, Texas, or Tallahassee, Florida would feel between $6,000-7,000 more expensive than Duluth.

These larger trends tell us something that should impact our region’s planning and decision-making. Even though expenses are rising, we’re still in an area that is relatively affordable by national standards. That leaves the question: who should benefit from this fact? The people who live here now, or people with the money to buy it all up?

Northern Minnesota might be more affordable than other places, but an increasing number of people still can’t afford housing or child care here or anywhere else. When it costs more than $300,000 just to build a middle class house, market-rate housing will not be affordable to anyone who makes the median income in our region.

Setting aside the bluster of partisan politics, I see only three ways forward.

We can accept the rising inequalities of billionaires holding exponentially more money than everyone else (including mere millionaires and their perceived hardships). That’s the default. It absolutely will happen if we do nothing. It’s happening now. This will lead to most people being subject to high rents with little hope of ever achieving the upward financial mobility once vaguely promised by our American system.

Conversely, we could take definitive action to protect society’s interest in our community. We might invest in programs to connect working people to housing opportunities, or build homes to be sold interest free. We could provide free or reduced cost child care or, for once and always, address the injustices of our for-profit health care system.

But, you know, these things cost money. Billionaires would have to pay, and we tend to balk at ideas when rich people buy ad campaigns telling us to knock it off. Maybe we’re not ready for that yet?

A third option is hard for different reasons. We could reorganize our idea of what prosperity looks like. Is it a big house, two cars and a bunch of gas-powered toys? Or is it a small home, a garden and shared modes of transportation and community services. Are willing to get off our phones and Netflix to help each other? Would we work — really work, without pay — for our communities, because doing so is right?

Right now, I fear that we are too caught up in ourselves and various forms of political and marketing manipulation to entertain such fanciful ideas. But we might get there.

We might have to.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. ‘Could not agree with you more.

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