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Paul Martodam on 35 years of fighting poverty

The departing head of Twin Cities’ Catholic Charities worries political leaders are too busy fighting each other to help the needy.

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.  

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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?

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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. 

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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.

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The Martodams have five children and five grandchildren.