Tom Swain and Minnesota since World War II

Citizen Swain

Trying to understand how Minnesota became “above average” since World War II is one of my intellectual passions.  I just finished Citizen Swain: Tales from a Minnesota Life by Tom H. Swain (with Lori Sturdevant) and came away with a much improved understanding on how Minnesotans accomplished this feat.  At the center of it was active civic engagement by men and women who moved between the public and private sectors from the 1950s through the 1990s.

Here’s a picture of Minnesota’s average income per person relative to the national average from the late 1940s until the late 2000s:

MN income

I’ve posited that Minnesota made this transition because of

  • High rates of labor force participation (especially by women);
  • Investments in human capital (such as education and health care); and
  • Investments in physical capital (both by private funders and public agencies)

Swain, along with many others of his generation, worked to promote all of these factors. He worked in the public sector (in both state government and at the University of Minnesota) and the private sector (at the St. Paul Companies through dozens of non-profit organizations) to promote civil rights for women and men who had been denied them on account of gender, race, or sexual orientation.  He led efforts to develop human capital through reforms in K-12 education, higher education, and health care.  And he supported and encouraged investment in both the public sector (though his work at the state level and in local government) and the private sector.

On the last page of the book, Swain writes, “I’m disappointed when I hear about business and professional leaders retreating at the end of the workday to gated neighborhoods.  That’s not how the leaders I admired lived.”  He goes on, “Civic organizations that have been important to Minnesota’s quality of life have declined, and we will all pay a price if that trend continues.  Somehow we as a society have to find ways to do the work that voluntary associations have always done in this state.”

Minnesotans need to take up Tom Swain’s challenge or risk falling back to average or worse in the coming years.