Hunger effort's goals echo project to end homelessnessby Julie Siple, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — This week, a coalition called Hunger-Free Minnesota announced a campaign to make sure all Minnesotans have enough to eat by 2014.
Similar plans have been tried before; all sorts of local and national efforts have sought to end homelessness, fix public education or eliminate poverty. Setting those lofty goals carries with it a big risk of failure.
In his 2004 State of the State address, then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty said something that may sound, in retrospect, a bit optimistic.
"Our homeless population in Minnesota isn't so large that we can't solve the problem in the near and intermediate term," Pawlenty said at the time.
Seven years ago, Pawlenty set a goal to end long-term homelessness in Minnesota by 2010. Since then, the number of chronically homeless in the state has almost doubled, according to the latest count by Wilder Research.
It was the kind of goal that sounds ridiculous to Mitch Pearlstein, founder and president of the Minneapolis-based conservative think tank Center of the American Experiment.
"There's a tendency for reasons I can't fathom — I really can't — for otherwise smart and savvy people to come up with these absurd goals which cannot be achieved," Pearlstein said.
Pearlstein is a big Pawlenty fan. But he argues promising 100 percent and then missing the deadline creates cynicism. He suggests setting a lesser goal, such as ending 80 percent of homelessness.
But efforts should aim high, says Laura Kadwell, director for ending long-term homelessness in the Pawlenty administration.
"How inspired are you by ending 80 percent of homelessness?" she asked.
Kadwell said you need a lofty goal to inspire people.
The program to end long-term homelessness aimed to create 4,000 units of permanent supportive housing. With a $540 million price tag, it created places for people to live and provided services like mental health counseling to help them stay there. To date, the program has created almost 3,500 of housing options for homeless people.
"It would be impossible to call that a failure," Kadwell said. "The more we work on it, the more we learn about what really works."
She ticks off the accomplishments: more homeless people housed, more community awareness and a greater understanding of how to tackle complex social issues. Kadwell doesn't regret setting a big goal. Pawlenty, a Republican who's now running for president, has said the recession kept them from meeting that goal.
While Minnesotans were working on homelessness, Philip Mangano was leading an equally ambitious federal effort to eliminate long-term homelessness under President George W. Bush. Chronic homlessness has fallen nationally since the effort began.
Mangano and his colleagues consulted authors who study how to create change, particularly in big social issues. He learned making measurable progress on a tough problem can have a positive psychological effect, even if the goal isn't met.
"If you can address a seeming intractable problem, you create a psychological tipping point. So that people believe that you've made progress. That's very powerful in morale. It's not always hitting the target, it's getting everything moving in the right trajectory to hit bullseye at some future date," Mangano said.
The new effort to fight hunger in Minnesota doesn't proclaim it will end hunger. It calculates Minnesotans are missing about 100 million meals annually. The coalition of nonprofits and businesses aims to fill that gap by increasing food at food shelves and increasing participation in food stamps and child nutrition programs.
But it does aim to fill that gap 100 percent by 2014, so no Minnesotan goes hungry. Pressed on what happens if they don't make it, Rob Zeaske, executive director of Second Harvest Heartland food bank, talks about partial success.
"While we're aiming for the 100-meal mark, we didn't create this to settle for some of hunger. We created it to get all the way to the mountaintop," Zeaske said. We know that every incremental piece we're adding on to the meals available to our neighbors who need it is going to be an achievement for them and for us."
Mitch Pearlstein, at the Center of the American Experiment, says filling the meal gap is probably possible. Pearlstein notes that an effort limited to providing people with food is more realistic than setting out to end homelessness.
He warns, however, that even if they accomplish their goal, even if they hit 100 percent, there's the question of what comes next.
"Nothing is fixed forever. No policy is in place forever," Pearlstein said. "Things change, no battle is perpetually won."
Marrkell McGriff is one of the 500,000 people in Minnesota who sometimes struggles to get enough to eat.
Her first reaction upon hearing the plan: "No way. Minnesota is just way too big for everybody to be fed. There's going to be somebody in Minnesota who's hungry, somewhere."
But as for aiming high, she's all for that.
"More than anything in the world, I appreciate the effort in trying. Maybe I could be wrong, and some day the hunger will stop. I want to be wrong," she said.
- All Things Considered, 06/09/2011, 5:55 p.m.