Takes from a debate: Addressing poverty should be a priority

During her October 5 debate with 20-year incumbent congressman Greg Walden (R-OR2), challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner raised a concern on poverty. The concern is that, despite an improving US economy, poverty levels remain very high in Oregon, and particularly in the 2nd Congressional District. Unlike her opponent, she identified addressing poverty as a priority.

Jamie is absolutely right. The economic recovery started by the Obama Administration has continued under the Trump administration, but the poverty levels (although continuing to slowly improve) remain unacceptably high, nationwide and in Oregon.
For the contiguous US, the federally defined poverty limit in 2018 is a gross annual income of $12,140 (for a one-person household), to which $4,320 should be added per additional person in the household. This translates into $25,100 per year for a family of four, and $33,740 per year for a family of six.

In a 2016 study, the Oregon Center for Public Policy found that the number of Oregonians living in poverty in 2015 was 15.4 percent (versus 14.7 in national average). For Oregon, that was down from the 2011 peak (17.5 percent) but still higher than before the 2008 recession (12.9% in 2007).

The number of poor Oregonians in 2015 (607,000) exceeded the state’s population east of the Cascades (532,000). Poverty remained particularly high for children (19.7 percent) and for Oregonians of color (30.7 percent, for Black/African Americans). The numbers for Native Americans are also devastating: 28.0 to 29.2 percent. And, deep poverty — a measure of Oregonians living in the direst of circumstances — remained disturbingly elevated (6.9 percent in 2015, versus 7.9 in 2011 and 5.7 pre-recession, in 2007).

No equivalent, more recent, in-depth study is readily available to me. However, even assuming that the trend of improvement relative to 2011 that started in the Obama administration has continued, there are too many poor people in Oregon. And this is defining poverty by the federal limits, which, as most of us would readily accept, are well below what it actually takes for a family to meet basic needs.

Many regions in our district have even higher poverty levels than the Oregon averages. A 2014 article in the Oregonian showed that, for June/July 2014, Wheeler and Malheur counties had 5 to 6 percent higher poverty than the Oregon average. And Klamath, Lake, Harney, Crook, Jefferson, Grant, Baker and Union counties also had significantly higher poverty than average, by as much as 3 percent. Only Hood River, Sherman and Gilliam counties outperformed the state average by more than 1.5 percent.

To address poverty, Congress needs to act on areas such as education and professional training, infrastructure, health care, fair tax reform, and more. Granted, there are no easy or immediate solutions. But this shouldn’t be a red or blue issue. It should be an issue of basic human rights–and, also, one of smart economics.
Unfortunately, Greg Walden has not made fighting poverty a priority. And, based on the debate, he does not plan to, should he get re-elected. It really is time for a change in who represents us.


(1) The Oregon Center for Public Policy describes itself as: “we are a non-partisan, non-profit organization that researches and analyzes tax, budget, and economic issues. We share our information with all Oregonians, and pay particular attention to putting our work in the hands of lawmakers, the media, and politically-engaged Oregonians. We work with lawmakers to design the best policies to enrich the lives of all Oregonians.”

(2) I am not affiliated with the Oregon Center for Public Policy.

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