Minnesota Compass has just released our latest Compass Points publication, summarizing our indicators of quality of life in our state. When preparing this document, the Minnesota Compass team also took a look at how those indicators are trending, giving each key measure a rating of “better,” “worse,” or “same” based on recent patterns.
For our 2023 Compass Points, we are seeing more indicators than usual moving in the wrong direction, with 14 of our 27 featured measures flagged as trending worse. That pattern probably won’t surprise most of our users given the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic and its ongoing impacts on our state’s economic, education, and health systems. It is, however, something for policymakers and community leaders to continue to monitor closely as our state moves forward.
The following is a summary of some of the indicators that are trending in the wrong direction, and related indicators that are doing well. We also offer a peek behind the curtain at the art and science of determining a trendline.
Remote learning and other pandemic disruptions took a toll on student performance. Eighth grade math proficiency dropped dramatically and has not recovered. Third grade reading proficiency saw a similar, though less steep, decline. Coming down the education pipeline, we saw the share of young children receiving early childhood screenings drop sharply during the pandemic. Because early intervention is important for responding to childhood developmental delays, the impact of that drop might be felt in the education system in the coming years. On the positive side of education, high school graduation has remained steady through 2021.
Economy and workforce
Workforce participation has fallen since 2019 (although it remains higher than in 2009-2014). The number of jobs in Minnesota fell sharply in 2020, although the state has added some of those jobs back over the past two years. Other economic indicators are trending positively, with GDP and median income both on the rise. Looking toward the future, we know that the growth of our working-age population is slowing, while our retirement-age population is growing rapidly. These demographic changes will impact many aspects of our economy in the coming decades.
A larger-than-usual share of babies were born at low birth weight in 2021, likely a result of pandemic strain on the health care system making quality prenatal care less accessible. Obesity continues to rise, and more than 1 in 4 Minnesotans report experiencing depression or anxiety symptoms like uncontrollable worrying or feeling hopeless. On the positive side, health care coverage has remained steady. The environment also has impacts on health, and we saw air quality in the Twin Cities dip again in 2021, after an unusually healthy year in 2020 when fewer cars were on the road.
Serious crime rates have risen over the past four years. Violent crime, in particular, is at the highest level in over a decade. Property crime has ticked up slightly since 2018, but remains at a lower level than in previous decades. Traffic safety also has two levels to the story, where overall injuries have been falling steadily for decades, but traffic fatalities are up over the past two years.
Civic and youth engagement
Volunteerism rates are down, and fewer youth are participating in arts lessons and other enrichment than in previous years. Additionally, a smaller share of youth feels that adults at school and in their community care about them than in the past. Minnesotans still vote, help their neighbors, and attend arts and culture events at a high rate.
There is both an art and a science to determining whether an indicator is trending better or worse. Our Minnesota Compass team meets to decide which rating to give each indicator based on a combination of factors. Sometimes the decision feels obvious, where an indicator has been trending in one direction steadily over the past 5 to 7 years (like educational attainment), or has changed notably in the past year or two (like 8th grade math proficiency).
The “science” of our decision is also based on some statistical considerations. Many of our indicators are based on survey data, so we are always mindful of error margins, which might indicate that what looks like a change actually could be due to random variation in who happened to get the survey that year. For example, a five percentage point increase in the share of Minnesotans creating art might seem meaningful, but with error margins of 5-7 points, we can’t be sure that the difference is not due to random chance.
Other times, the way to flag a trend is less clear, such as when an indicator is better than a decade ago, but has ticked worse again over the past couple of years. That is where the “art” of our team’s decisions comes in. In those cases, we look at the broader story. What forces may have driven the recent change and are they likely to continue? Are related indicators moving more decisively in one direction or the other? Is the trend clearer among certain population groups?
In our Voter Turnout indicator, for example, even though midterm voter turnout fell from 2018 to 2022, turnout remained well above 2010 and 2014. Our team ranked this trend as “same,” since it was continuing a pattern of improved voter turnout compared to the previous decade.
On many of these indicators, Compass users (and even staff within the Compass team!) might reasonably disagree on the right way to categorize a trend. We always remind users that what matters is not just the static number or recent trend analysis, but the story behind the data. Our data represent people--the lives they live, the challenges they face, and the strengths that emerge in communities. What do we see happening in people’s lives that might drive Minnesotans to volunteer less, or create art more, or enter or leave the labor force? What public policies have shifted that might drive an outcome up or down?
A dashboard like Compass Points gives Minnesotans a tool to measure progress and inspire action. We hope our 2023 Compass Points – and the entire Minnesota Compass project – gives community members and policymakers a clear picture of what is happening in our state, and allows you to tell the stories that give voice to our communities and help keep our quality of life moving in the right direction.