Gary Cunningham

For over 20 years, Gary Cunningham has served as the top leader of philanthropic, health care, public policy and educational organizations. Currently, Gary serves as vice president, chief program officer for the Northwest Area Foundation. He is responsible for carrying out the foundation's mission to support efforts by the people, organizations and communities to reduce poverty and achieve sustainable prosperity.

TROUBLE IN LAKE WOBEGON

Posted by: Gary Cunningham under Society, Government, Politics Updated: February 7, 2010 - 9:26 PM

TROUBLE IN LAKE WOBEGON

I’ve always been a big fan of Garrison Keillor and his fictitious town of Lake Wobegon. According to Wikipedia, “The characterization of the fictional [Lake Wobegon], where ‘all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average,’ has been used to describe a real and pervasive human tendency to overestimate one’s achievements and capabilities in relation to others. The Lake Wobegon effect, where all or nearly all of a group claim to be above average, has been observed among drivers, CEOs, stock market analysts, college students, parents, and state education officials, among others.”

In some ways, Minnesotans emulate the Lake Wobegon effect, in that many consider themselves to be a little better than average. In national surveys, our kids historically have performed better in school and Minnesota generally ranks higher in health and quality of life indicators. Until recently, Minnesota had fared better economically in recessions than the national average.  It must be noted that these better than average outcomes are consistently lower for people of color and American Indians.   
The recession we are currently in, however, seems to have a leveling effect on all of us in the midst of a jobless economic recovery, high unemployment, and the continued home foreclosure crisis. It is a grim picture even for us stalwart Minnesotans who are used to “toughing it out.”
Many Minnesota families today are struggling to make ends meet – regardless of their race, creed, color, or whether they live in rural, reservation or urban communities. The theory that all boats rise and fall together with the tide of the economy seems to be true. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The fact of the matter is we are all in the same boat.”
In September 2009, the Northwest Area Foundation in St. Paul released the results of a survey, conducted by Lake Research Partners, which polled 400 adult Minnesota residents. This survey asked a series of questions about how families and individuals are faring in these tough economic times.
According to the survey, more than 60 percent of Minnesotans, when asked about the economic struggles within their homes and communities, indicate that they have cut back on their spending because of the recession. About one-quarter of Minnesotans say they or a family member living with them have lost a job in the past 12 months. More than one-third (41%) say they have had their work hours cut. More than one in four families (27%) have had problems paying for basic necessities, and 51 percent of Minnesotans have cut down the amount of money they are spending on food and have cut back on their retirement savings. Hard times indeed!
Two-thirds of Minnesotans see more people struggling today than they did a year ago. Minnesotans also believe people are struggling because of circumstances beyond their control. Only 22 percent say it’s due to poor individual choices. In other words, the discussion about poverty that Minnesotans are having in their living rooms and kitchens has shifted. It is no longer about those “other people”; those “other people” are us.
Minnesotans are worried, but somewhat hopeful. More than 74 percent of Minnesotans say they are worried that their local economy may get worse in the coming year; however, almost 60 percent of Minnesotans feel optimistic that the national economy will turn around.
Minnesotans are also hopeful that they can address issues of people struggling in their community and are willing to roll up their sleeves to do something about it. Upwards of 80 percent are very optimistic that the number of people struggling locally could be reduced within their communities. Moreover, 80 percent also indicate that they are willing to volunteer for an organization in their community to help their neighbors who are struggling.
One of the significant findings in this survey is that even though times are tough, more than 55 percent of Minnesotans say they would be willing to pay $50 more in taxes if it went to local programs to help people struggling in their community.
According to the survey, “Minnesotans have clear priorities when it comes to what they say would make a difference in the lives of people who are struggling to make ends meet. A vast majority of the public (94%) says local elected officials have a great deal or some responsibility in keeping and attracting good-paying jobs. Eight-two percent say this should be a top or high priority. Three of four Minnesotans (76%) say that local elected officials should have some or a great deal of responsibility in making sure that there is a safety net for homeowners and renters so they do not lose their homes.”
More than 75 percent of Minnesotans state that they think about how well a candidate for office would help those struggling to make ends meet as they cast their ballot. Almost half of Minnesotans (47%) indicate that helping people to make end meet is a top priority.
Many of us are very grateful for the commitment and the dedication of all public officials, regardless of their political affiliation. We know that they are facing very difficult and challenging decisions.
Through hard work and sacrifice, Minnesota has ranked better than average on many indicators. Our quality of life has been better because we’ve lived by our values and have sought long-term solutions that ensure adequate investment in education, infrastructure, health, environment and community. While we have many issues, including health and social disparities, we have rarely sacrificed the underlying values that make Minnesota a great place to live and work.
With the Legislature currently back in session, grappling with a $1.2 billion deficit in this biennium (2010-11) and a projected $5.4 billion deficit for the next biennium (2012-13), there are no easy answers. I believe, as many Minnesotans do, that we need to move beyond the partisan deadlock and focus on innovative solutions. Sacrifices will have to come from all corners. Minnesotans have indicated that the primary goal must be not to harm the already fragile quality of life for working and low-income people who are struggling to make ends meet. It is important that our policy leaders really listen to what Minnesotans are saying and what Minnesotans expect from our elected officials as they deliberate on how to balance the state’s budget shortfalls.
Now, more than ever, we need to invest in Minnesota and its people.
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