25 Jan

Food stamps can be a short-term investment — and one that pays off big

Cary Fardal thinks of her family’s time on food stamps as a U.S. government investment.

The people she now works with at the Oregon State Hospital would probably agree.

After graduating high school – “barely,” she says with an unrepentant grin – she spent years on Mount Hood, in the life that seems idyllic to a skiing Oregon teenager: running lifts, giving some lessons, going on ski patrol. But eventually, after marrying and starting a family, she concluded – possibly at the end of a long ski trail – that grown-up life might call for a different identity.

Say, as a dietitian.

It took a long time, starting in community college, moving to Portland State, then to Oregon Health Sciences University, ending in a mandatory unpaid internship. By the end, along with the degree and credential that made her immediately employable, Cary and her husband had two middle-sized children.
Along the way, she needed a little help.

When she was pregnant and had small children, Cary, like almost half of Oregon mothers, had the support of the Women, Infants and Children program, providing fruits and vegetables, whole-grain breads and low-fat milk. Lots of people think WIC is a good idea, since those babies and small children will one day grow up – hopefully healthy.

And for six years, on and off, she and her family drew food stamps. Sometimes, the family’s help came to a few hundred dollars a month, providing as much as 90 percent of her family’s food budget, putting apples and vegetables and hamburgers on the table. Sometimes it was just the minimum, 10 or 20 dollars a month, and sometimes, when she was on a break from school and making sandwiches at Subway, her family wasn’t on food stamps at all. Every six months, at the times when she did qualify, she traveled down into downtown Portland to fill out the paperwork.

“I was always moving forward,” she remembers of those six years. “I knew it wasn’t a long-term thing.”

It seems we could be coming into rough times for food stamps, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, described this January by 12 national nutrition advocacy groups as “our nation’s first line of defense against hunger.” Originally a bipartisan program advanced by Democrat George McGovern of South Dakota and Republican Bob Dole of Kansas – both at one point their parties’ presidential candidates – SNAP has become a political target. House Speaker Paul Ryan – now further empowered by Republican control of the Senate and the White House – has been introducing budgets to lump SNAP, Medicaid and other safety net programs into a less-funded block grant to the states. The programs, he warns sadly, lure “able-bodied people into lives of dependency and complacency” and “can create a powerful disincentive to get ahead.”

It’s an attitude that can produce snark and snorts directed toward clients showing their SNAP cards in supermarket checkout lines. “I guess I got the occasional look in the store,” recalls Fardal, although the looks would bounce off someone who always knew she was moving forward.

That way, Fardal was typical of a lot of food stamp recipients and families. Instead of the myth of permanent dependency, the Census Bureau reported in 2012 that more than 30 percent of clients collected food stamps for a year or less, another 17 percent for two years or less and 14 percent for no more than three years. And according to a calculation by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 58 percent of SNAP families, and 62 percent of SNAP families with children – which means most SNAP families, like Cary Fardal’s – include someone who is working, like her husband. Families qualify for SNAP if the worker isn’t earning much – and in a country where the federal minimum wage hasn’t changed in a decade, that takes in a lot of families.

“I had the drive to go back to school and learn something,” recalls Fardal. To anyone else driving forward, “I would definitely say, just suck it up and get whatever help you can.”

After all, you’re an investment.

“I am sure,” she says with the same grin that described her high school record, “I have more than paid it back in my taxes.”

NOTE: This column appeared on the Oregon Food Bank website.

15 Jan

On supporting higher education, Oregon should just do it

The highlight of Oregon higher education in 2016 – especially when you consider the football season – was Nike founder Phil Knight’s 10-year gift of $500 million to the University of Oregon for a science research complex.

University of Oregon President Michael Schill called the gift – possibly the largest individual donation to any state university ever – “spectacular,” and declared that with the donation, “the University of Oregon can achieve a level of excellence and national prominence that has previously been out of reach.

Knight himself said how happy he was to make the gift “in an age of declining public support for scientific research generally and declining public higher education support specifically.”

Funny he should mention that.

For a place that’s just gotten a present of half a billion dollars, the University of Oregon – along with Oregon’s other six public universities – is once again in a difficult financial position. That’s not to mention the situation of the Oregonians attending or hoping to attend them.

In November, the seven university presidents, working together under the new Higher Education Coordinating Commission structure, requested an increase in state support of $100 million – getting the number about where it was in 2007, back before the legislature proudly proclaimed the goal of 40 percent of Oregonians having four-year degrees. “This investment,” the presidents pledged, “will allow all campuses to keep tuition increases to a manageable level for the next two years and ensure that students can graduate without taking on a lifetime of debt.”

Unfortunately, in the state’s current financial crisis – funny how often these arrive since the passage of Measure 5 – Gov. Kate Brown’s budget proposes flat-funding the universities, giving them what they received in 2015-2017. The problem is that the universities’ costs aren’t staying the same; as Schill points out, just for a start the universities’ insurance costs, PERS costs and union contracts will be rising.

“The governor’s budget is basically cuts for us, after many years of cuts,” said Schill last week. “We will have to raise tuition by a very large amount, particularly on in-state students.”

The UO, of course, will not be alone in that situation. Looking at the challenges now facing the universities, and the legislators, HECC executive director Ben Cannon commented last week, “We’ve got a lot of work to do, and they’ve got a lot of work to do, to keep tuition increases below 10 percent.”

There may be legislators prepared to try to find a way. “From my perspective,” commented state Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, co-chair of the legislative Ways and Means Committee, “flat funding universities is not an option that we can realistically consider.”

This might be particularly true because some of the universities will be less able to withstand flat-funding than the University of Oregon, and less able to jack up tuition. “For smaller regional universities, this budget will represent a particular challenge,” notes Cannon. “At some institutions, the cuts would be quite deep and painful.”

At the University of Oregon, there is the prospect of a billion-dollar, Death Star technology-level science innovation complex set into a university otherwise stretched to support its students. “It can’t just be the Knight campus isolated from the university,” says Schill. “The entire university needs to be healthy.”

Besides offering opportunity to Oregon students, and providing Oregon business a workforce that it doesn’t have to recruit from other states and other countries, there’s another reason why Oregon needs a strong higher education system. “There’s Seattle to the north, and Silicon Valley to the south,” points out Schill, “and we’re getting pressure from both.”
And the track is just getting faster.

At just about the same time in late October that the University of Oregon was exultantly announcing the Knight donation of half a billion dollars, the University of Washington went public with its $5 billion fund-raising drive, with $3 billion already committed. The leaders of the drive wrote in the Seattle Times, “(T)he UW’s ability to provide the level of world-leading education, research and public service we have come to expect is at great risk, with college diplomas sometimes accompanied by burdensome student debt and broken dreams.”

The University of Oregon is not, of course, the University of Washington, a world-class research institution with a major medical school. But much of the UW fund-raising is dedicated to maintaining undergraduate education and limiting tuition increases.

The fund-raisers note that the drive partly responds to state disinvestment – although Washington still spends considerably more generously on its universities than Oregon. But as Michael Schill points out, private donors generally are less eager to replace vanished public money than to add to it, to strengthen an already strong institution.

Phil Knight’s support for the University of Oregon, and for Oregon higher education, has indeed been spectacular.

We just shouldn’t expect him to do it all by himself.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 1/15/17.

03 Jan

In the Trump time, Oregon needs to remember who we are

It’s hard to remember a year that we were so relieved to see end.

Nor the start of a year that we were awaiting so nervously.

What we need, it seems, is a New Year’s Day that lasts indefinitely – a new beginning that just keeps beginning, instead of seeing what happens next.

The editors of the Merriam-Webster dictionary declared that the word of 2016, the word most often searched on-line, was “surreal.” The folks at the Oxford English Dictionary concluded the 2016 word was “post-truth.”

Nobody knows what the word of 2017 will be, but it will probably be in a tweet.

Out here on the edge of the continent, the new year arrives three hours later but with at least as much post-truth surrealism. West Coast citizens seem to see the world, and the coming year, differently from many of our fellow Americans – and the phrase “fellow Americans” may itself appear post-truth in 2017 – as the values that produced three Hillary Clinton landslides along the Pacific Coast are rejected at the borders of Washington, D.C.

Possibly by a big, beautiful wall.

At a time when freedom of expression is increasingly disdained in the new order, when the incoming president whips up audiences to jeer and scream insults at the newspeople covering his events and dreams of new libel laws to deal with insufficiently reverent coverage, Oregon’s Supreme Court says our state constitution locks in expanded protections for expression. This has made Oregon the strip club capital of the universe, but in the next four years it might be useful.

Back in Washington, D.C., the natural world is now viewed with suspicion except for the parts containing fossil fuels; the newly designated director of the Environmental Protection Agency has never met an environmental protection he didn’t want to sue. But possibly because we have an ocean next door, on the West Coast we have strong feelings about keeping the planet set up approximately as it is now. (Florida also has an ocean next door, but seems unworried about the likelihood of that ocean covering much of the state in the future, possibly because many Floridians don’t plan to live that long.) So we have our own efforts, among the three states and British Columbia, to try to keep the air breatheable and at a recognizable temperature level.

Officials of all three West Coast states have declared that regional efforts will continue even if the federal government tries to drill in any unoccupied space. California has recommitted itself to increasing the proportion of its energy produced by renewable fuels, a commitment shared by Oregon. “California can make a significant contribution to advancing the cause of dealing with climate change,” Gov. Jerry Brown told The New York Times last week, “irrespective of what goes on in (the other) Washington.” Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington state is pushing what would be the country’s first carbon tax. Dec. 14, when the Portland city council voted unanimously to ban future fossil fuel terminals in the city, Mayor Charlie Hales called the policy “the first stone in a green wall across the West Coast.”

We’d be willing to build that wall.

Well before Obamacare, Oregon was committed to expanding health care coverage here. Under Gov. John Kitzhaber in the 1990s, the state won federal waivers to expand its enrollment in Medicaid by prioritizing treatments. Under Gov. Ted Kulongoski in the next decade, Oregon managed to cover many more of our children. Repealing Obamacare may be easy – the House of Representatives has already done it about 60 times – but replacing it will be more complicated. Whatever health structure wreckage the country ends up with, Oregon is likely to try to keep its commitments to its own citizens.
Like everybody else, residents of Oregon and the West Coast use the bathroom. Unlike North Carolina, we’ve tried not to make it the center of our politics. We’ve also tried, not always successfully, not to build our politics on our dislike of each other. Oregon and Washington are not nearly as diverse as California, now a minority-majority state, but we’ve been changing rapidly. Washington County, 40 years ago a land of vanilla suburbia, is now the most diverse place in the state, and in east Portland, David Douglas High School distills dozens of languages spoken by its students into a steady statement of success.

Oregon spent the 1990s, and a while afterward, fighting over sexual differences. You couldn’t say we’ve all come to love each other, but we’ve learned the costs of despising each other. In the days to come, that will be an important thing to understand.

As the state motto tells us, Oregon flies with her own wings. In the year to come, in the years to come, the air is likely to be particularly turbulent, and our own wings will likely be our best support.

On the West Coast, as Joan Didion wrote about California, we have to make things work, because this is where we run out of continent.

And we’ve just run out of 2016.

But we haven’t run out of future.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 1/1/17.