18 Apr

Hunger advocate retires, notes Oregon is a beautiful state with too many empty tables

Twenty years ago, coming up from California and working as a consultant for the Oregon Hunger Task Force, Patti Whitney-Wise was struck by one difference.

In Sacramento, state legislators were remote figures, each representing hundreds of thousands of people, reachable only by appointment and negotiation. In Salem, legislators roamed loose in the state capitol, available to anyone lurking to make a case.

Whitney-Wise recalls her immediate conclusion: “If you play your cards right, you could get something done here.”

As she retires at the end of this month, as executive director of what’s now called Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, it turns out that she could.

Whitney-Wise has been a vital part of a major statewide effort – an alliance extending from the Oregon Food Bank to advocacy groups to legislators to individuals accosting legislators – that has attacked and made some progress on an Oregon hunger problem the size of the Cascades.

The time when the state first really focused on the problem, Whitney-Wise recalls, can be pinpointed. At the end of the 1990s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture started compiling and issuing state hunger rankings, based on rolling three-year averages of population surveys.

The first year, 1999, the USDA ranked Oregon as the second-hungriest state in the country. The next year, Oregon was #1.

Recalls Whitney-Wise, “That’s when a lot of emphasis was put on hunger.”

Of course, not everybody bought the USDA’s statistics. “Kitzhaber and Bush in Texas were the two governors who couldn’t believe it,” she says. But “those of us in the hunger community weren’t surprised.”

Then, early in this century, in the wake of the crunching 9/11 recession, Oregon began to make some progress. The key strategy was expanding the state’s participation in the nation’s central anti-hunger program, food stamps. Oregon launched a major public and private outreach effort to sign up Oregonians who qualified for food stamps but weren’t enrolled. The state legislatively expanded the numbers who qualified – and simplified the application from 25 pages to three.

Rapidly, the federal food support coming into Oregon strengthened dramatically. Oregon became one of the top states in the nation in its percentage of eligible residents enrolled in the program, and started getting participation bonuses from the Department of Agriculture. The benefits extended beyond the Oregonians who were getting something to eat; the efforts brought an additional $132 million a year in federal money into the state economy.

(Research has also found that food stamps have the largest multiplier impact of any federal funding; recipients tend to inject the money into the economy quickly, often before lunch.)
And an active advocacy effort, prominently featuring Whitney-Wise, produced a range of legislative anti-hunger efforts, including funding and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, investing in summer food programs, and Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s Act to End Hunger, a five-year plan.

Oregon improved to being only the 17th hungriest state. It was far from terrific – it still ranked us in the top third, and nobody goes around chanting, “We’re # 17!” – but the change was a demonstration of what effort could do.

Then came the Great Recession, and the not-so-great recovery. We’ve come back from the depths, but hardly all the way.

“It’s still bad,” says Whitney-Wise. “The new normal is not good. The new normal is worse than when we were #1.”

Which, at least, we’re not; we’re closer to #13. According to the USDA’s last figures, released last September, Oregon was tied with several other states with 6.3 percent of its households at some point experiencing hunger – or as the USDA daintily calls it, “very low food security.” Back when Oregon was #1, the number was more like 5.8 percent.

It’s harder to be #1 these days. Hunger has gotten more competitive.

But our prospects have certainly improved to this extent: We now know we can do something about it.

“I remain hopeful, because I’ve seen the difference an effort can make,” says Whitney-Wise. “I feel very good about the number of people, especially young people, taking up the banner and running with it.”

In fact, she remains, as always, indominantly cheerful, despite a career working with poverty and hunger – and state legislators. She’s moving to Minnesota to observe a new grandchild, a figure of even greater attraction than a Ways and Means co-chair, and will be honored at a May 12 dinner marking the 10th anniversary of Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon.

She knows Oregon problems that remain.

“We underfund our systems,” she points out. “It’s a beautiful state, so we think it’s good enough.

“It’s not good enough.”

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Ore4gonian, 4/17/16.

04 Apr

How long can Senate Republicans pretend that Merrick Garland doesn’t exist?

When the U.S. Senate returns from its two-week recess Monday, its first order of business will be to keep trying to ignore an 800-pound gorilla.

Or at least a 150-pound Supreme Court nominee.

The Republican Senate leadership is standing firm in its insistence on ignoring President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the high court, on the grounds that when Obama named Garland, there were only 10 months left in Obama’s term. The GOP leaders have urged their senators not even to speak to Garland, to pretend he doesn’t exist, and possibly to hold their hands over their ears and just repeat “La, la, la” should he approach.

Oregon’s Democratic senators, rolling through Southern Oregon last week, pronounced themselves perplexed.

“The Constitution did not foresee a Senate filled with ostriches,” said Ron Wyden. “The policy ‘Put your head in the sand’ is nowhere in the Constitution.

“All over the state, people come up to me and say, ‘Are you folks going to vote?’”

Polling suggest people are urging that in other places, too, but if you can ignore a nomination, you can also ignore polls.

“At this point, this is really a dereliction of duty by the Republicans,” said Jeff Merkley. “They know it, and they’re embarrassed by it.”

Of course, these days, the GOP embarrassment threshold keeps getting higher.

Over the past two weeks of this recess, pressure was supposed to be building on Republican senators, and there have been some signs of it. Jerry Moran of Kansas and Susan Collins of Maine said publicly that the Senate should proceed with the nomination, and Mark Kirk of Illinois, perhaps the most endangered GOP incumbent this November, actually met with Garland – who is, after all, from Illinois.

“It’s significant that Mark Kirk met with Garland yesterday,” judged Merkley, but “I don’t think you can call it a major fissure yet.”

Last week also showed another effect of the empty seat on the Supreme Court, as the justices delivered rulings on two major cases with 4-4 ties. With the Republican claim that filling the seat should wait on the next president, and the time required for that nomination to move through the process, this would be the situation for quite a while.

Points out Wyden, “We shouldn’t have to wait until spring 2017 to have a full court.”

And that’s assuming nobody else leaves the court over the next year. Given the uncertain proposition that is life, the next president could start out with a list.

Still, the Republican Senate leaders are holding firm. Orrin Hatch of Utah wrote an op-ed for The New York Times declaring he was standing for eternal principle, although most of the piece was about how much he disliked President Obama. Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley spent the recess promising Iowa audiences that he wouldn’t hold hearings on Garland, although he warned that Democrats might try to hold a vote forcing the nomination out of his committee.

As the Senate returns this week, Wyden agrees that that kind of vote might be technically possible – although even if Democrats somehow attracted enough Republicans for a majority to get the nomination out of committee, it would still take a more distant 60 votes to force a confirmation vote – but says Democrats haven’t actually discussed it. Merkley notes there are other strategies Democratic senators could use to try to force the Senate to take up Garland, such as refusing the unanimous consent needed to proceed on most actions, or filibustering to paralyze the Senate, but he doesn’t sound enthusiastic.

“I think in general, people in the Democratic caucus think there’s been enough paralysis already,” he said. “We’ll continue just trying to win the hearts and minds of our colleagues.”

This also seems to be the approach of the Obama administration, hoping that each Republican senator’s willingness to have a polite conversation with Garland will somehow add up to an eventual willingness to hold an actual Senate vote on confirming him. It may not be entirely promising, and given the rigid positions of the Senate leadership, a more likely outcome might be that the paralysis consuming the Senate will spread across the street to the Supreme Court.

But who knows.

“I don’t think anybody can predict,” said Wyden. “This is the year when everything you predicted wouldn’t happen, happened, and everything you predicted would happen, didn’t.”

But it really doesn’t seem that the Senate can spend the entire rest of the year ignoring the 800-pound gorilla of an empty Supreme Court seat and a qualified Supreme Court nominee.

After all, it’s also got an entire federal budget to neglect.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 4/3/16.