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Minnesotans should renew efforts to end poverty in the state by 2020

John Hottinger

In 2006, inspired by the leadership of Minnesota faith community leaders, the Minnesota Legislature created a Legislative Commission to End Poverty by 2020 (LCEP.)  It had bipartisan support and was signed into law by Gov. Tim Pawlenty at the end of a legislative session marked by sharp budget cuts, controversy and acrimony. The LCEP proposal incorporated the themes of The Common Foundation, a document signed by 35 ecumenical and interfaith leaders from around Minnesota with diverse and inclusive faith backgrounds and representative of the world’s great religions.  

Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St.Paul and Bishop Peter Rogness of the Saint Paul Area Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, often spoke for the group, but the signers trumpeted the same message: “ … as people of faith, with varying theologies and traditions, we are convinced of a remarkable convergence on fundamental principles that call us to common work in combating poverty and walking with people living in poverty.” 

When it came to testimony to the public, legislators and legislative committees, witnesses included not only some of the those leaders, but also other Catholic priests, Lutheran ministers, Muslim imams, Jewish rabbis and faith leaders from many other Christian and religious traditions.

There were many skeptics about the capability of reaching the goal. As the economy degraded quickly, followed by a slow recovery, the goals may seem as difficult to reach as ever. But significant, worldwide progress against poverty has been made, commitments in Minnesota are still strong, and the goal is more attainable than those skeptics voiced seven years ago.

Public and private community effort

The reasons for optimism come from a variety of sources. First, The Common Foundation provided a realistic and principled roadmap to success. It didn’t call for government action alone, but rather promoted “Shared Principles for Work on Overcoming Poverty” – a rallying call for all segments of society to come together as a common community, including business, labor, education, and people of faith, “to work to overcome poverty. ... this work transcends both any particular political theory or party and any particular economic theory or structure. We believe that overcoming poverty requires the use of private and public resources.”

Second, the LCEP and its balanced bipartisan legislative membership worked diligently to come up with a set of recommendations, which are not just sitting on a shelf somewhere but are part of the bulwark of public and private action.

The recommendations fit into six major theme areas that include restoring work as a way out of poverty, modernizing our education system and refocusing public assistance to streamline services and support everyone’s capacity and potential.

This has led to some legislative advances, private-sector attention, and a project to develop micro-enterprise partnerships for small-business development in Minnesota communities. Likewise, these recommendations can serve as guidance for each of us as we find ways to engage ourselves in helping to reach the goal.

Third is the organization behind that micro-enterprise project: Minnesota Without Poverty. You can get in-depth details about The Common Foundation and the LCEP recommendations on the Minnesota Without Poverty website.  You can learn about the organization's work from 2004 in conjunction with the development of The Common Foundation, its instrumental  assistance to help the LCEP learn about the depth and reality of poverty in Minnesota, its current priorities of developing a broad, collaborative process entitled “Connecting to End Poverty: Moving the Legislative Commission to End Poverty Recommendations Forward in the Legislature” and its support for those micro-enterprise projects which will help the poor build and maintain assets.

Remarkable success worldwide

Between 1990 and 2010 there has been remarkable success in world efforts to reduce the worst levels of poverty. Over those 20 years nearly 1 billion people have been taken out of extreme poverty. The United Nations' aim of cutting world poverty in half by 2015 was achieved five years early because of the collaborative work of many countries. And “the world now knows how to reduce poverty,” according to business-oriented The Economist newspaper:  grow a country’s wealth (the Republican mantra) AND make sure that the new wealth is distributed more equally (the Democratic mantra.) 

Some efforts from the last legislative session will contribute to those goals. But activities such as subsidizing wealthy owners of massive football stadiums and giving giant subsidies to favored businesses such as the Mall of America and Baxter Pharmaceuticals don’t help to eliminate poverty, especially when contrasted with the failure to raise wages for the lowest paid Minnesotans. 

If businesses would raise their lowest wages to morally acceptable levels and the Legislature would raise the minimum wage it would be a giant step in the right direction. Last year’s political failure by the Legislature tells the lowest-paid Minnesotans that they have to live another year in poverty.

John C. Hottinger is a former Minnesota state senator, attorney, mediator and consultant in public policy and deliberative democracy processes.

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