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Low-wage jobs, high cost of housing cause Oregon hunger

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fifth report in an ongoing series on hunger in Oregon. The state has one of the highest hunger rates in the nation, according to federal surveys.
November 16, 2003

Why the cupboard goes bare: Low-wage jobs, high cost of housing explain some of the numbers

Mixing vanilla extract with powdered milk, Maria Prince snaps on the top of a sippy cup and gives it a shake.

"The trick to powdered milk is to put some vanilla in it," Prince said, walking out of her dim apartment's small kitchen and handing the cup to her youngest daughter. "It's the only way she'll drink it."

A month shy of 2, Kaya takes a sip. The blend proves a hit.

It's the last day of the month, and the money is gone. Qwest disconnected the phone the day before, after Prince, a single mother, left the bill unpaid. But on the bright side, Prince's 1985 Nissan is running, and Kaya's kidneys are healthy again. The other girls, Morgan, 10, and Emma, 7, are doing well in school.

Dealing with the inevitable money and food shortage at the end of the month, Maria Prince, 29, adds vanilla flavoring to powdered milk for her 2-year-old daughter, Kaya. Prince works as a certified nursing assistant, but with three kids, her income just doesn't cover her food needs.

In four days, the state will transfer about $250 to Prince's Oregon Trail public assistance debit card to supplement the $8.50 an hour she earns working full time as a certified nursing assistant.

That's when Prince, 29, will stock up on staples, buying, among other things, three cases of Top Ramen.

Such is the subsistence cycle for tens of thousands of Oregonians who, like Prince and her daughters, live near or below the poverty line despite their household having a full-time worker. These people are so close to the edge that food often becomes their budgetary shock absorber.

In Oregon, the problem is particularly acute. The state has one of the highest rates of hunger and "food insecurity" in the nation, according to federal studies.

Two-thirds of food-insecure households in Oregon are headed by working adults, the studies found, so focusing on families such as Prince's may yield clues on why the problem appears to be so severe here.

Experts say they've identified some key economic and social features special to Oregon that help explain the high hunger ratings:

Expensive housing: Oregon ranks fourth in the nation (behind New York, California and Florida) in the percentage of renters who pay more than 50 percent of their income on rent. A 30 percent share of income going to rent is considered manageable. Also, through the late 1990s, the state's largest cities - the Portland metro area, Salem, Eugene-Springfield and Medford - were ranked by the National Association of Homebuilders as among the least affordable places in the nation to buy a house. The group's ranking method compares home prices to income.

Dramatic population growth: Oregon was one of the fastest growing states in the 1990s, experiencing a 22 percent population increase from 1990 to 2001. The tech boom drew tens of thousands of newcomers to the state. But many of these transplants lack a local social network - friends or family - that can help in tough times, such as the job-cutting recession that swamped the state from 2001 onward. And in-migration into the state has continued even during the current economic slowdown.

Chronically high jobless rate: Between 1990 and 2002, Oregon's jobless rate exceeded the national rate in 10 of 13 years. Over much of the past two years, Oregon has led the nation in the percentage of unemployed workers. The state typically has a higher than average jobless rate because of its abundance of seasonal work - agriculture, construction and tourism - and cyclical industries such as high-tech and wood products. Also, the steady arrival of people from other states creates a big pool of unemployed, pushing down wages.

Income gap between rich and poor: Oregon had one of the fastest growing state economies between 1995 and 2000, but the disparity between rich and poor grew as high-paying unionized wood-products manufacturing jobs were replaced by lower-wage service-sector jobs. Between 1989 and 1999, the poorest 20 percent of Oregon families saw their income decline 6.5 percent, while income for the richest one-fifth of families grew 34 percent.

Oregon's high hunger rating has shocked political leaders. Gov. Ted Kulongoski has vowed to make eradication of hunger a top priority.

A survey released last month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture classified Oregon as the state with the second-highest hunger rate nationwide, and the nation's seventh-worst "food insecurity" rate - when people worry about whether they can afford adequate food for their family. Almost 14 percent of Oregonians in 2000-2002 were "food insecure," the agency found.

But battling hunger - or even deciding if the federal data are valid - is tough.

Some critics question the accuracy of the federal findings, claiming that the study overstates the breadth of the problem and noting that there is a big difference between skipping a meal and being malnourished.

After all, some economic data suggest that Oregonians aren't that poorly off. Oregon runs in the middle of the pack nationally when it comes to the percentage of people living below the poverty line. In median household income and per capita income - two standard measures of a state's economic health - Oregon is just slightly below the national average.

And how does one eradicate hunger? Food insecurity may simply be a symptom of deeper socio-economic problems in the state, experts said.

For workers such as Prince, basics eat up every paycheck. The utility tab, gas for the car, eggs, bread, lunch meat. "I can't tell you how many times in the past few months I've had to decide whether to pay a bill or buy groceries," Prince said.

A trip to the emergency room, car trouble, reduced work hours, job loss or an unexpected bill can spell crippling setbacks.

"People working in these service (sector) jobs are not making enough to meet basic family needs," said Michael Leachman, an analyst with the Silverton-based Oregon Center of Public Policy. "If something happens, some kind of income shock, you get people skipping meals and going hungry as the result."

Who's responsible for fixing that?

One economist argued that it's up to individuals, not government agencies. "A big part of this is people making bad decisions," said Bill Conerly, a Portland-based economics consultant. "At some point, you have to stop turning out kids when you have no means of support."

Housing woes

Housing, for most people rich or poor, typically takes the largest single bite out of income. The run-up in Oregon housing costs over the past dozen years has taken its toll on those least able to afford it.

Prince, for instance, takes home about $1,100 a month. Even with her rent subsidized through a St. Vincent de Paul low-income housing program, the $470 a month she pays for the two-bedroom west Eugene apartment eats up 43 percent of her net income.

Usually Prince is left with about $630 to cover everything else.

John Topogna, an economist with Eugene-based consulting firm ECONorthwest, said the link between housing costs and hunger in Oregon is fairly concrete. Topogna earlier this year studied the USDA hunger data, concluding that the high number of renters who pay half their income for rent is a significant factor in food insecurity.

"In Oregon, renters are atypical in how much they end up paying (in rent) as a share of their income," Topogna said.

Topogna found that 19.3 percent of Oregonians who rent spend more than half their income on rent. That's the fourth-highest rate in the nation. New York tops the list, at 21.6 percent, followed by California at 20.2 percent, and Florida at 19.6 percent.

Subsidized housing, where government agencies or nonprofits hold rents to affordable levels, is in short supply locally. Anne Williams, housing programs director at St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County, estimates that the county is 4,000 housing units short of an adequate supply.

St. Vincent has built affordable housing in the Eugene-Springfield area, but those projects fill quickly and leave many who qualify - usually the working poor - waiting.

"Last year, our waiting list was at about 150" families, Williams said. "Now it's over 300."

The Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute in 2001 studied 400 communities to determine the wages needed in each to support a family. In Eugene-Springfield, the institute found that a single parent working full-time with two children needs an hourly wage of $14.47. A single parent with three children, such as Prince, needs $19.58 an hour to cover housing, food, transportation, health care and other bills.

But lower-skilled workers rarely find such wages, especially following the manufacturing layoffs and business closures of the past three years.

Low-wage jobs

As the recession lingers, many lower-skilled workers lucky enough to hold onto jobs are facing reduced working hours, as their employers cut back. Several parents living in St. Vincent housing units are working two or three part-time jobs to make ends meet, Williams said.

Linda, who didn't want her last name used, works at a retail variety store in Springfield. Her regular 30-hour weekly shift has been slashed in half for much of the past year, she said.

"With the economy so bad, you get sent home early a lot and don't get your hours," said Linda, 29, who makes $7.45 an hour.

Her husband's pay, $10 an hour at an irrigation business, has remained steady and covers the $530 a month rent. But he also has a $200 monthly support payment for a child living elsewhere.

Linda's reduced workweek often translates into a poorly stocked cupboard. "We get paid twice a month," she said. "His check goes to rent, my check goes for everything else."

The couple, with two sons, ages 8 and 11, visit the Catholic Community Services food pantry in Eugene once a month for an emergency food box. The boxes typically provide a three-day supply that includes powdered milk, canned goods and frozen vegetables.

"We make too much for food stamps, but we are lucky when we have three meals in our refrigerator," Linda said. "So at the end of the month, we eat buttered noodles or Top Ramen."

Joe Softich, manager of the Catholic Community Services food pantries in Eugene and Springfield, said more new people are visiting the outlets this year than in the past.

"There's more people coming in saying they never needed help before and never expected they would," Softich said. "Food is the only place in the budget these people can cut back on because they have to pay for power and rent."

Prince, the nursing assistant, said she picks up a food box toward the end of most months. "I'm pretty thrifty with food shopping, but what I make just doesn't go far enough," she said.

Solutions elusive

Many observers agree that economic development and worker training are the solutions to Oregon's hunger problem, rather than expanding government entitlement programs.

But beyond that, the debate sprawls into a philosophical logjam over such broad issues as taxation and the role of government.

"The long-term strategy would be investing in the work force, and that means investing in the education system and our retraining system," said Leachman, of the Oregon Center for Public Policy. That would enable Oregon to attract higher-wage employers, he said.

But the Legislature, amid falling income tax revenue, has cut education spending, prompting community colleges - which provide most retraining - to slash programs.

Kulongoski has said economic development and the creation of high-wage jobs are a priority. He also wants to focus on affordable housing, spokeswoman Marian Hammond said.

But how? Specifics remain elusive.

John Charles, an analyst at the libertarian Cascade Policy Institute in Portland, advocates eliminating the corporate income tax and some other taxes, and erasing unnecessary regulations. Plus, housing costs could be cut by loosening the state's land use system that largely forbids development on farm and forestland, he said.

"We need to eliminate barriers to jobs creation," he said.

But even in good times, cutting taxes for businesses can be a tough sell.

And environmental and land use watchdog groups would fight efforts to substantially change Oregon's vaunted land use laws.

Meanwhile, Prince struggles along, harboring a plan to improve her family's future: train for a better-paying job as a registered nurse.

The Eugene nursing home where she works will help cover tuition for the program at Lane Community College. Prince has met many of the prerequisites needed for admittance.

But competition for the two-year program is stiff. "It's tough to get accepted," she said, adding that she has considered commuting to Linn-Benton Community College's program. But she's unsure how long her old car would last for that commute.

"My goal is to go to nursing school. It keeps me going," she said. "It will be nice just to go to the grocery store and buy the kids food without having to struggle so much."


Feb. 23: Gov. Ted Kulongoski calls a summit to address the alarming rate of hunger in Oregon.

June. 22: Children take center stage.

July 20: Homeless men present a difficult challenge.

Aug. 30: Low-income elderly residents are squeezed by higher medication and utility costs and less federal and state assistance.

Today: An analysis of a variety of economic factors helps explain Oregon's relatively high ranking in hunger and food insecurity.

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