21 Nov

Janette faces high barriers to re-entering the job mainstream

It’s hard to know just what economic index might notice Janette.

Once, she had a full-time job, living in a house she’d built in Washington state with her husband and daughter. Then, hit by a cascade of calamities – medical problems for her and her daughter, domestic abuse, job problems largely connected to her other issues – she found herself unemployed, hospitalized and escaping across the Columbia with her daughter, bouncing from her mother’s house to her sister’s garage and back.

But through impossibly difficult times, never sure where she’ be sleeping next week and selling her possessions to stay afloat, Janette managed to keep doing what people say she should do: She earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting on-line from Eastern Oregon University, and her daughter is moving through Portland State while working 30 hours a week at Subway.

Now she just needs someone to hire her.

So if Janette shows up in an economic survey, it might be about how hard it is to claw your way back into the economic mainstream at 49, especially when the subject of what you’ve been doing for the past few years is not a promising topic in a job interview.

Even when you’ve been doing all the right things. And when, she makes a point to say, she has no criminal record or drug past.

“I keep trying,” Janette explains, her face animated with the effort of explaining it all. “It’s really discouraging. What if nobody hires me?

“All I can do is keep trying.”

Accounting, of course, is a useful degree. And Janette is convinced she’d be in a strong position, if she just had two years of work experience in the field.

Of course, for that, someone would have to hire her. Which would mean successfully navigating one of those job interviews, where she has to explain her recent years, and always thinks the employer is noticing her weight – her days have not been conducive to healthy eating and exercise – and calculating what it might mean for the company’s health care costs.

Waiting, she’s had short runs at various jobs, such as housekeeping, or running a holiday bazaar for a church – showing, she points out, that she is really good at organizing.

“If I was working full time,” she says, sounding almost wistful, “it would make things much easier.”
So for now, she tries to be there for her daughter, and her mother, knowing how fragile is her barrier against being homeless, in a place where rents are going up monthly.

To try to hold everything together, Janette gets some help from food pantries, from a harvest share program, and from food stamps. That part could also become fragile, as the new political reality of Washington, D.C., unfolds, with new power to the forces looking to shred even a low-calorie safety net. Food stamps are a longtime target of the House Republicans, and now it seems there is little to get in their way.

While Janette furiously paddles to keep her head above water, and hold up her daughter and mother – and tries to imagine getting back to the life she once had – the last thing she needs is losing any remaining support.

But for now, she keeps looking for a way, and keeps trying to stay positive.

“I’m sure there’s a lot of people,” she says firmly, “who have it worse.”

It would be useful to have an economic index that noticed that.

NOTE: This article appeared on oregonfoodbank.org,

21 Nov

This Thanksgiving, biggest food pressure isn’t from too much turkey

It could be an unusual Thanksgiving.

About half the country, and more than half of Oregonians, may approach the season feeling at once thankful and terrified. Lots of Americans this Thursday could face conflicting impulses to gather at the Thanksgiving table and to hide beneath it.

Untouchable by any election returns, of course, are the deepest roots of our thankfulness: each other. And if the theory of Thanksgiving is gratitude, its practice is feeding people.

In Oregon, with some of the richest lands and waters in the world, that mandate is more than seasonal.
This fall, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued its latest edition of “Household Food Insecurity in the United States” to limited notice; possibly Americans were distracted by something. Based on an average of surveys over three years, the report found that from 2013 to 2015 significantly fewer American households reported low food security than during the previous three-year period, 2010-2012. In fact, over that time, only one state in the country reported a significant decrease in its food security level:


Pass the stuffing.

It’s not that we’re having our own private recession. Our overall economy is strong, and as of last week, jobs were growing here at twice the national rate. But there are parts of Oregon where the recession from the last century never ended, and others where the only thing growing faster than the economy is the cost of housing.

We’re producing places to work faster than places to live, and our current level of cool is attracting more people and driving up rents. Mark Edwards of Oregon State recently found that renters in Oregon were six times as likely to have food problems as homeowners, double the national rate.

“People still have to make impossible choices,” notes Matt Newell-Ching of Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, “between paying for rent and paying for food.”

Oregon’s biggest defense against hunger’s squeeze on its citizens has been federal food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. With state and private outreach efforts, Oregon has achieved one of the nation’s highest percentages of citizens who qualify for SNAP actually being enrolled in the program, a flow of federal help that’s been vital, especially in the state’s rural, hungriest areas.

A recent collection of academic studies of the program, “SNAP Matters,” offered the conclusion, “SNAP surpasses the (Earned Income Tax Credit) as the nation’s most effective antipoverty program for the nonelderly.”

Now, the state’s first line of defense looks newly vulnerable. The longtime goal of House Republicans, led by Speaker Paul Ryan, to wrap food stamps and other safety net programs into a block grant likely to shave pieces off all of them, especially when the next recession comes around, will now be unblocked by a Democratic White House or a Democratic Senate. The pipeline to the plates of 700,000 Oregonians could get narrower.

“He calls it ‘A Better Way,’” says James Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, a D.C. hunger advocacy group. “I call it a meaner way.”

The president-elect, Weill notes carefully, has never said anything about hunger programs, and a large infrastructure spending program could provide some jobs and help with incomes. But Weill notes that the House Republicans’ drive to cut and repackage hunger programs has been persistent, and the coming months will provide multiple opportunities for the cutters: a spending bill that has to be passed early next month to keep the government in business; a reconciliation bill due next year to set out the priorities of the Trump administration; a child nutrition reauthorization bill that Congress has not yet managed to pass, and an upcoming farm bill that includes the budget for food stamps.

As Thanksgiving approaches, you can hear knives being sharpened.

“Hunger continues to be a monumental problem in our state,” said Sen. Ron Wyden last week. “When you’re talking about programs that are a lifeline to vulnerable families, that is what our core values are.

“We are going to be in some of the toughest battles of our life, a battle royal for people who deserve to have government on their side.”

Speaking into the distinctly unthankful Oregon mood following the election, House Speaker Tina Kotek and Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson urged last week, “Moving forward, we ask everyone reading this to consider ways to be an ally to your neighbor.”

A lot of Oregonians may need allies in the immediate future: immigrants, Muslims, possibly women trying to keep control of their own bodies, not to mention widely despised groups such as journalists. And there could be a particularly pressing need in the particularly Oregon problem of hunger, a need for support both of federal programs and of private efforts such as the Oregon Food Bank.

This year, a new and colder climate could push Oregonians to take on the first duties of Thanksgiving:

Set places at the table.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 11/20/16.