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Paul Martodam on 35 years of fighting poverty

Paul Martodam

On the advice of his doctors, Paul Martodam last week left a 35-year career dedicated to lifting people up and out of poverty, but before closing the door on his office at Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, he called for a united, national effort to end poverty.

Right now our leaders in Washington, he says, are too busy fighting one another to accomplish that goal.   

“Our national politics are about fear and divisiveness rather than unity and pride. Our national focus is pointing fingers at what is wrong rather than pointing to the horizon and looking where we want to go. I think that is just a sad, sad state of affairs,’’ says Martodam, 62, who took up the reins as CEO of the Twin Cities charity  in January 2010.

What he envisions is an umbrella effort involving government as well as philanthropic and civic groups to identify and implement the most successful poverty reduction programs on a wide scale.  

In late 2010 Martodam’s diagnosis with spreading stage IV esophageal  cancer became very public when he urged his board of directors to seek a new CEO while he sought treatment. Meanwhile, he took on less responsibility as chief strategy officer.

A lay person, Martodam brought to the Twin Cities experience gained at Catholic Charities agencies in Crookston and St. Cloud as well as 17 years as CEO of Catholic Charities of Phoenix. Under his leadership there, the organization’s budget grew from $8 million to $35 million and attracted national recognition for prostitution recovery and poverty reduction programs.

Catholic Charities LogoDuring his tenure in the Twin Cities, he has overseen the renovation of the Dorothy Day Center, an emergency shelter in St. Paul and the building of Higher Ground, an innovative housing program in Minneapolis. 

MinnPost caught him by phone, asking the soft-spoken man to reflect on his respected career.  Here are edited excerpts of the interview:

MPThink back to your starting days with Catholic Charities, in 1976, and the numbers of the poor. How does that time compare to this? 

PM: I’d have to look at the data, but I’m guessing it wasn’t all that different from today. I think back then we were just beginning to think about food shelves and emergency shelters, particularly in the rural areas of the state. It had been happening in the urban areas, but it was a totally new thing in the rural areas. I can remember setting up a food pantry in St. Cloud. We thought of it as a temporary thing….. Unfortunately, all of these services have come to become part of the landscape of the community.

MP: When were the good times?

PM: In the ‘80s, and I don’t recall the exact numbers, I know that poverty was cut in half during the 1980s. It was a focused effort to getting people out of poverty.There were a host of programs developed at the national level….There was a perception that a lot of those programs failed — the War On Poverty programs — but they actually cut the poverty rate in half.  

MP: So, there was a great deal of money allocated to poverty reduction programs then?

PM: There was a huge federal investment in housing programs, training programs, a pretty concerted effort to help people get out of poverty. And I think there was also a commitment among companies that they needed to be part of the solution, and we still do today have a lot of corporations making a concerted effort to reduce poverty through their foundations.

MP: What about Minnesota today?

PM: The last official statistics are from 2010 and the national poverty rate is 15.1 percent, so Minnesota at 11.5 percent is significantly lower. 

MP: Are you discouraged by the current poverty numbers?

PM: The current numbers are a result of the economy. I think everyone knows the way to reduce poverty is to have jobs available. Former donors, people who used to volunteer in our programs are now recipients. It’s been a very difficult turnaround and a long, slow recovery. This is a new phenomenon in our lifetimes.

MP: When you have seen poverty firsthand, seen families with many children that they cannot feed or house, have you ever questioned the Catholic Church’s anti- birth control or “natural” family planning position?

PM: Our culture is focused on personal responsibility… Our church (and nearly every religion) is focused on our responsibilities to one another. Our culture is focused on getting as much as you can, while our church is focused on giving as much as you can. Our church also believes that life begins at the moment of conception, that we are all created in the image of God, and that our greatest responsibilities are to love God, and love one another as Jesus taught us. I believe every human being is a brother or sister of mine… so, no, I have not questioned or second-guessed people’s decisions about family planning or the church’s position.

MP: Are Americans willing to do what is needed to end poverty?

PM: It depends on what we set our minds to do. We can end poverty. We don’t have poverty because of a lack of resources. 

MP: What, given the opportunity, would you like to tell people in leadership and governance positions?

PM: First of all, we have to create a national vision…  Until we have that vision, we’re going to continue to flounder around. We have this myriad of programs but they exist in silos…. People are forced to go from place to place to place and apply, apply, apply. We have all these administrations…overseeing this. If we had a single point of access… so we have government and community working together  – which I think Minnesota has done as well or better than anywhere in the county. Our Heading Home Minnesota, Heading Home Hennepin and Heading Home Ramsey [are examples]. …

There’s a national piece of legislation called the National Opportunity and Community Renewal  Act: designed to relook at how we structure our federal programs, with a single point of access, a common IT platform to eliminate a number of barriers that exist. A big piece for us is having a plan for every person who comes to us that moves them towards getting out of poverty, a real partnership with government programs, philanthropic programs and civic leadership. Unfortunately, you can’t get anyone in Washington to pay attention to this. They’re too busy fighting – each other.

We’re working with Notre Dame to set up the Laboratory for Economic Opportunity-researching programs across Catholic Charities that have been effective in lifting people out of poverty. We want to know what it takes to replicate, what changes we can make in public policy to implement it.

MP: During your time here, what do you consider among Catholic Charities’ most notable accomplishments?

PM: A real high point here is the development of our new housing program Higher Ground, which we will dedicate next month. It is a new concept in housing. It is an innovative housing program for people who are homeless, the continuum from emergency shelter to supportive living. We have 251 shelter beds, 74 supportive living units and 11 efficiency apartments with some of the best views in Minneapolis.  I also think of the renovation we just completed at our Branch III facility in Minneapolis, transforming it from a daytime drop-in center for homeless people to a one-stop service center with about 15 agencies with onsite services….

We are completing a renovation at the Dorothy Day Center, adding showers, laundry, expansion of office facilities for partner agencies delivering services on site.

MP: So what’s in your immediate future? 

PM: My wife Linda and I plan to go to Hawaii to visit our daughter. I expect to work on legislation to accomplish much of what you and I have just talked about. I could be serving food at Dorothy Day. I want to spend some time at Higher Ground.

The Martodams have five children and five grandchildren.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Mike Downing on 04/19/2012 - 12:51 pm.

    The “War on Poverty”

    What is the track record of the federal & state government programs on the “War on Poverty”? They appear to have created a class of people dependent on government. I saw this first hand while volunteering for the Red Cross after Katrina & Rita. I saw people so dependent on government that they could no longer make a decision on their own. I saw 36 year old grandmothers with two daughters with young children who were dependent on Section 8 housing, food stamps, WIC, etc. This was their life before the hurricanes.

    The solution to poverty for the vast majority of individuals is simply personal responsibility, valuing education and taking advantage of their educational opportunities, etc. It really is that simple for 90+% of the people.

    • Submitted by Virginia Martin on 04/19/2012 - 06:04 pm.

      poverty and culture

      The “culture of poverty is “an encompassing web of circumstances and not a pattern of behavior.”
      Poverty is a shortage of money.
      The culture of some of the poor was an indictment not of the poor but of the social system that produces that life.
      Citing books on the poor and culture: poor people have the same work and family values, the same motivations, as other Americans. The poor tend to lose faith in their efforts, however, as they fail in the educational system and the workforce.
      An increase in opportunities for education, training, and meaningful work is what is needed to help the poor.
      Presumably the people you were working with were black, right? That adds even more complexity to the problem. They suffer from systemic discrimination.

  2. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 04/19/2012 - 04:09 pm.


    Many knowledgeable people say the War on Poverty was successful. When it was passed until about 1982 when Reagan took over, it lifted millions of people out of poverty. But here’s an excerpt from another website, which says the problem concerning the stubborn persistence of poverty isn’t government policy or a lack of effort by individuals and their communities. The real problem is inequality and the selfish agenda of the GOP which is obstructing and preventing the kind of economic growth that is necessary to sustain the policy successes of the past. The main example is their refusal to even consider more fiscal stimulus and instead pushing more spending cuts to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy.
    Why are people in persistent, long-term poverty? I’m very happy that you helped out in Katrina, but I doubt that you had a very good look at their lives before that. You as a white person–I’m assuming–have no idea of the obstacles and difficulties facing black people, especially in a state like Louisiana and a city like New Orleans.
    People have less and less opportunity in the United States all the time. The statistics are there. The causes are systemic racism and the increasing inability to working people to get a good education, through high school and especially in colleges and universities because of costs and so on.
    Mencken said: For every complex problem there is a simple answer and it’s wrong.
    This is one of the most complex problems in our country and always has been.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/19/2012 - 09:22 pm.

    “We don’t have poverty because of a lack of resources”

    MP: “Think back to your starting days with Catholic Charities, in 1976, and the numbers of the poor. How does that time compare to this?”
    PM: “I’d have to look at the data, but I’m guessing it wasn’t all that different from today.”
    PM: “We can end poverty. We don’t have poverty because of a lack of resources.”

    To be fair to Mr. Martodam, his mission has been trying to lift people out of poverty, not in preventing it. But at some point over the past 35 years if we had focused on prevention we’d have less poverty today.

    I’m from one of the poorest Indian reservations in this country. My family’s move to the ghetto in the city was a move up. When I was a kid, most of my friends lived in the public housing project or in apartments over storefronts. I know about being poor.

    I can’t tell you how to get rich, but I can guarantee you a life in poverty. All you have to do is:

    1. don’t graduate from high school
    2. get pregnant before you get married
    3. get married before you have a job
    4. get addicted to an intoxicating substance
    5. go out of your way to alienate your immediate family
    6. hang out with people who see 1-5 as no big deal

    If we really want to stop the cycle of poverty, and sometimes I wonder if we do since people have made a career out of it, somebody at some point along the way has to start teaching young people about items 1 thru 6 and not simply help them fill out the forms for more government benefits.

  4. Submitted by Steve Hoffman on 04/20/2012 - 03:10 pm.

    It’s not all political …

    ““I’m stunned,” said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby founded by sisters. Her group was also cited in the Vatican document, along with the Leadership Conference, for focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping “silent” on abortion and same-sex marriage.”

    Full story at

    Yeah, too much emphasis on poverty and economic injustice, while ignoring the REAL issues of the day. What a crock.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/20/2012 - 03:57 pm.

      Those who no longer

      believe in or support the church’s teachings owe it to themselves to leave the church. This is especially true of clergy.

  5. Submitted by Lawrence Goodwin on 05/02/2012 - 11:39 pm.

    Thanks Paul

    I had the good pleasure of working with Paul in Phoenix. There is a big problem with working at Charities Phoenix…it raised the bar so high that I am often frustrated when I encounter other professional agencies because I have yet to find such a great place as Charities Phoenix.
    Paul, you and Kristen created a top notch professional, caring and truly evangelical agency there in Phoenix. I set my sights on what I learned from you at Charities Phoenix in the parish work I do now. It truly was an honor to share the 3rd floor at CCAZ and St. Jerome with you! Know that you and your family will be in my prayers here in L.A.

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