Poverty in Oregon: Not just a number

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For most Oregon families, the effects of this economic crisis are still very real. New census numbers show just how bad the recession has hit our state, but our analysis suggests that the situation is even more severe than the numbers show.

Oregonians see the impact of the crisis every day as they try to provide for their families, look for employment, and simply try to put food on the table. Unless our state and federal representatives can commit to investing in the vital services that protect the vulnerable, educate kids and create economic opportunity, these numbers are unlikely to budge.

The Census data shows that the number of people in the US living below the federal poverty line has grown to 1 in 6 people, or 15.1% of the country. That equals 46.2 million Americans living in poverty, or just about the total populations of California, Washington and Oregon combined.

In Oregon, about 14% of our residents — or more than half a million Oregonians — are living below the poverty line. More troubling is the disproportionate effect on children: a whopping 25% of Oregon kids under the age of six live below the threshold.

This data is based on a federal "poverty line" of $22,113 in annual income for a family of four. Most people understand that the effects of poverty are not discrete – living just above the poverty line doesn’t mean your experience is substantially different than folks who are living just below. More than 18.5% of Oregonians live under 125% of the poverty line, yet they are not counted in these statistics. This leads to a flawed picture of how many and which folks are struggling – an important picture for our leaders to understand as they examine budget decisions in the coming months.

For a family of four, why is $22,000 considered poverty yet not $23,000?

In the 1960s, an absolute poverty line was determined by multiplying the average cost of food for an American family, which back then amounted to about 33% of the family budget. Today, that cost is closer to about 15% for the average family of four*.

By ignoring the changing expenses of modern life, the poverty measure drastically underestimates the prevalence of people living in poverty and results in disinvestment in social safety net programs such as food banks, education, healthcare services, employment opportunities and more. We’re seeing this in Oregon right now. As demand for help grows – record numbers of Oregonians have been seeking assistance this year – and as resources shrink, our agencies and service organizations are incredibly overstretched as they try to help everyone. Many people fall through the cracks.

Assuming that the formula works, applying the amount Americans spend on food today – a drastically different percentage of our income than in the ‘60s – would almost double the “poverty line” income threshold for a family of four.

Much larger numbers of Oregonians can’t afford their basic needs than the numbers suggest.

We call ourselves a progressive leader in the nation, but our kids are the most food insecure of any state. Many of our residents are without health care, putting themselves and their families at risk. We’ve got shockingly high unemployment that has persisted without change for months.

Meanwhile, our corporate taxes are in the bottom five in the nation, according to the Council on State Taxation.

What do we need?

Too many children and families are suffering in poverty while corporations and the rich enjoy low taxes and record profits. We need action that protects and bolsters the middle-class (funding schools, critical services) not more handouts to the wealthy.

We must more fully fund schools, social services, and public safety. We must maintain the services that help our most vulnerable while providing economic opportunities to move our state out of this economic crisis. Otherwise, more and more Oregonians will fall through the cracks.

As a nation, we should hear the strong sense of urgency in the case for a new jobs bill – and act quickly. The Register Guard released its summary of the direct assistance Oregon would receive from President Obama’s jobs bill.

We must lean on our representatives to guide us through this crisis, beginning with the legislative session in February and the Legislature’s ability to create a budget that protects the middle class instead of dismantling vital assistance for Oregon folks, many of whom never thought they would worry about where their next meal would come from.

Oregonians are hurting, and we need direct investment now, not continued record-low taxes for big corporations and the wealthiest among us.

*The "Orshansky Poverty Threshold" was created in 1964 by Mollie Orshansky, a woman working at the Social Security Administration, to determine an "absolute level" of poverty. At that time, the Department of Agriculture determined that families of three or more spent about one third of their income on food. To determine an absolute poverty line, Mollie Orshansky simply multiplied that number by three.

That method of determining the poverty line has remained almost exactly the same for the last forty-five years, despite the fact that that food now accounts for somewhere around 15% of the family budget (some say closer to 10%). Housing, transportation, medical costs and utilities take up much more of the family budget than ever before. Forbes Magazine said in 2006 that housing is the largest expense for Americans of all income levels.

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