27 Apr

Telling, and living, the stories of hunger

“I was a starving child,” said Darleen Deasee, and the words hung in the air of the Oregon House Majority conference room, which got very quiet.

“The only meal I got was lunch in school. At 10 I started stealing food, and a grocery owner told me if I needed a can of soup I should just ask him. I would fall asleep in class because I was so hungry.”

About half an hour before, in the state Capitol’s largest hearing room in the building’s basement, Jeff Kleen of the Oregon Food Bank was talking to a crowd of Oregonians come to lobby the Legislature about hunger. Wearing green scarfs reading “WE CAN SOLVE HUNGER,” looking like somewhat older and less manic Portland Timbers soccer fans, they listened to Kleen offer advice on how to persuade legislators to add another $800,000 to the Oregon Hunger Response Fund.

Be positive, he told them. Talk about community benefits. Keep the message simple.

Tell stories. Stories can change minds.

“College students are like anyone else,” Elizabeth Liddy, the manager of the Portland State University food pantry, told her next meeting with a legislator. “It’s not whether they’re eating ramen, it’s whether they’re eating at all.

“We started in a closet, and now we serve 4 percent of the students of Portland State.”

The 270 citizen lobbyists mobilized by the food bank had appointments with all 90 members of the legislature, starting at 7:45 a.m. Legislators from more distant parts of the states might have a handful of visitors, a gathering fitting in their guest room-sized personal legislative offices.

Members from closer districts might draw enough of a crowd, mostly constituents, to fill a caucus room, with tight legislative schedules meaning just a few of the visitors got to tell their story.

“Just about every Catholic church has a St. Vincent de Paul branch,” helping with food and other needs, related Matt Gato of the archdiocese of Portland. “It helps to be a longtime Chicago Cubs fan. You’ve got to have hope.”

Legislators have different ways of listening. There’s their visibly open but clearly wary demeanor for questions from reporters. There’s the close, furrowed-forehead attention for professional lobbyists who want to talk about a bill’s paragraph (c) of Title VII.

Then there’s the taking-it-all-in, storing-it-away focus extended to constituents who are actually talking about their lives.

“I lost everything and ended up in a shelter” after a second bout with cancer, recalled Alesa, her voice shaking. “If it weren’t for the food bank, I’d be on the streets. These people are my family.”

Around the table, all the visitors who wouldn’t get to say anything this time listened intently, giving support, bearing witness.

“One of my schools had a food drive,” recounted Dan Crunican of the Oregon Food Bank, who explained that he’d decided in his fifties that he’d made enough money and it was time to do something else. “A teacher told me she saw a student take food from the barrel.

“I said, it’s direct delivery. Let it go. Close your eyes.”

It turns out that when you offer legislators your stories, they have some of their own.

“I grew up in a pretty abject level of poverty, before food stamps,” remembered Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, co-chairman of Ways and Means and the Capitol’s acknowledged authority on the state budget.

“I ate a lot of cheese.

“It’s a very difficult year. But one thing that I look at is, there are things where you can make an investment and get a direct return to my people.”

And there is more than one way to get a return.

Every year the House and Senate have a food drive competition, and every year the House, with twice as many members would win, recounted Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, a long way from his vast district in Northeast Oregon. The famously irritable Senate President Peter Courtney was irritated by the situation.

“Somebody said, ‘Why don’t you get some potatoes?’ and I thought, ‘Why not?’” continued Hansell, visibly enjoying the story as he told it. “So I called some farmers. We got a truck full of potatoes up here, 70,000 pounds.

“We smoked the House.”’

For citizen lobbyists, that story even has a moral: Smoking the House can be done.

NOTE: This column appeared on the Oregon Food Bank website, 4/20/17.

16 Apr

Oregon’s yawning gap between aspiration and reality

SALEM – Oregon’s educational goals are inspiring.

The state’s officially adopted target is 40 percent of its population having at least a four-year college degree, for another 40 percent having a two-year degree or a professional credential, and every Oregonian having at least a high school diploma.

It’s an ambitious goal – especially for a state with one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country, and bumping along toward the bottom of higher education spending – but it makes sense for the 21st century, when the job market is about to be invaded by self-driving cars, none of whom need to be paid enough to support a family.

Fortunately, Oregon’s goals are resting on its Quality Educational Model, a meticulously calculated design of how much the state needs to spend on its K-12 system, producing qualified students who could flow seamlessly into 40-40-20.
This actually gives the state two guiding principles on education: One is 40-40-20, and the other is “Pay no attention to those numbers behind the curtain” – the numbers showing what we’re actually spending.

For years now, Oregon political and higher education leaders, when asked about the contrast between the state goals and the state effort, have sought to look spiritual and explain that the goals were “aspirational” – meaning, wouldn’t it be nice. It’s been as if President Kennedy’s plan to reach the moon in a decade was by looking up to the sky and wishing really hard.

In this legislative session, Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, offered a bill to abandon 40-40-20 on the grounds that we had no plans or expectations to reach it, a clear-eyed calculation that would itself be a new standard for Oregon. His goal, he said, was “to have a conversation about how our aspirations have not been linked to our funding plans.”

Evans, with a background in the Air Force and the Oregon Air National Guard running to both Iraq and Afghanistan, brought his own perspective to the challenge. “I go back to my military background,” he explained. “I don’t expect 100 percent capability from a fighter squadron that’s at 70 percent capability.”

After the point in the legislative calendar when unwanted legislation gets abandoned, Evans’ bill has ended up in what he calls “a very shallow grave.”

He’s now working on a bill creating a task force to try to bring aspirations and policies within hailing distance of each other. He’d want to take into account the new realities and expectations of schools in the two decades since the Quality Education Model emerged, and believes it is possible to close the gap: “I think people would be willing to invest in education if they had a clear idea about what they’re going to buy.”

A goal of 40 percent of Oregonians having four-year degrees also requires, of course, strong and growing universities to give out the degrees. The previous legislature actually made a small dent in Oregon’s historic underfunding of its higher education system. “When the last budget passed, I felt strange,” recalls Portland State president Wim Wievel, in his ninth and final year on the job, “because I didn’t have to cut our budget.”

This year will likely be different. With proposed spending for the universities flat from the last legislature, and costs increased, Wiewel sees a $20 million shortfall in the PSU budget. His plan is to fill it with $9 million in cuts – larger classes, fewer choices for students, fewer counselors – and $11 million in tuition increases, part of a pattern set other universities, including the University of Oregon’s proposed 10.8 percent tuition increase. Double-digit increases, worked out by the universities new institutional boards of trustees, have drawn the concern of Gov. Kate Brown, although her alternative seems to be for the universities to find ways to cut more deeply.

Coming off of Portland State’s recent day at the Capitol – a regular practice of the universities, with administrators, students, alumni and now trustees coming to make their case to the legislators – Wiewel received, as usual, “a lot of verbal support.” He explains that sometimes the interest in higher education can actually be overpowering: “In the absence of money, there can be micromanaging, telling you what to do with the money they’re not giving you.”

The legislature clearly faces major financial problems, with a state budget shortfall estimated at $1.6 billion – driven by rising Medicaid and PERS costs – before dealing with any of the shortcomings in Oregon’s elevated aspirations. Few proposals for new revenue, all politically challenging in themselves, even cover the existing hole in the budget. Monday is expected to bring a proposed no-new-revenue, all-cuts budget that one legislator forecast would be “hair-raising.”

But Oregon’s grim fiscal realities, and its limited interest in overcoming them, have not been set against our soaring aspirations. Oregonians have declined once more to confront the contradiction, but it’s not about to go away.

Wiewel strongly supports the goal of 40-40-20, but is uncertain about the strategy.

“Forty-forty-twenty has been a vision without a plan,” he says. “A vision without a plan is a daydream.”

Although Oregon has preferred to say “aspiration.”

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

05 Apr

For undocumented, Catholic Charities takes on the uncertainty

The events are called “charlas” – talks – and Catholic Charities holds them in schools and churches, places where so far the immigration authorities don’t go. The charlas explain to undocumented Oregonians their legal rights: the times when they don’t have to answer questions, that they shouldn’t let anyone into their home without required authority.

And how to prepare a power of attorney, so that if they’re deported, they can leave their U.S. citizen children in the custody of a relative or a neighbor.

“It’s super difficult to tell someone to fill out a form giving custody to someone else,” explains John Herrera, director of immigration legal services at Catholic Charities in Portland. “It is always so hard to explain to a parent that the best you can do is find someone to take care of your child.”
But otherwise, your kids might vanish into to the foster care system.

The organization has been holding holding charlas for a decade. Lately, however, it’s been holding a lot more of them.

Donald Trump ran for president, of course, on a pledge to round up huge numbers of undocumented immigrants, and now millions of people have been waiting for the other boot to fall. “Among immigrants and refugees, there is a lot of uncertainty about who’s going to be deported,” says Herrera. “We don’t know what’s going to happen –“ as the president talks of hiring thousands and thousands more enforcement agents.

Last week, uncertainty – not to say fear – ramped up considerably. U.S. Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III threatened sanctuary cities that were refusing to cooperate with deportations – like, say, Portland – with cutting off federal law enforcement funds. Sessions warned sanctuary cities (and states and counties) that they were making America “less safe by putting dangerous criminals back on the streets,” making a connection between immigrants and violent crime that is statistically untrue but politically appealing. Last week, an Oregon Republican spokesman echoed the attorney general, accusing Portland of protecting “criminal illegal aliens who are murdering and raping.”

Lately, the unease has been turned up in other ways. Several local young immigrants covered by President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program have recently been detained. While the government officially maintains that its deportation efforts target criminals, its raids have increasingly swept in others, shown in a regional Northwest operation last week.

Local law enforcement officials oppose a sanctuary crackdown because – aside from not wanting to lose federal money – they see it driving immigrant communities deeper underground, making them unwilling to talk to police about any other crime. Already, says Herrera, undocumented immigrants – who may have been here a decade or longer – are becoming reluctant to deal with government about programs that would benefit their American citizen children, or even for something like a marriage license. In Los Angeles, sexual assault reports are down by a quarter, presumably due to women concluding that government might be more dangerous than their attacker.

Oregon authorities have resisted the Trump administration’s threats; last week, Gov. Kate Brown cited “my recent executive order that precludes all state agencies from treating Oregonians as criminals solely on the basis of immigration status,” and insisted, “What the federal government can’t do under the U.S. Constitution is conscript state law enforcement officers to implement the policies of this Administration.”

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler challenged the administration’s power to cut off law enforcement funding – San Francisco and Seattle have already filed suits on the issue – but conceded that the federal immigration agency “has the power to operate within our city, and does not have to inform us of their activities.”

And, Herrera points out, there are parts of Oregon where the feds don’t often reach, but local sheriffs and police might have their own agenda. In some parts of the country, such as California’s Central Valley, farming figures are beginning to express concern about the impact of mass deportation. But in Oregon, reports Herrera, “I haven’t heard anything. My question is, what are they going to do? Who is going to pick up the crops?”

Working with Oregon’s undocumented immigrants – estimated at as many as 150,000 – Catholic Charities doesn’t have its own attorney, although it’s hoping to add one. Now, it gets help from volunteers from the American Immigration Lawyers Association, some support from local foundations and, adds Herrera, “parishes are starting to step up” – although he notes that Catholics, like everyone else, are not entirely united on the issue. Catholic Charities’ funding from the federal government, for refugee resettlement and some other programs, is either dropping or endangered, and it’s not easy to find outside help when everybody else’s funding is threatened as well.

Herrera came here in 2003, a lawyer back in Colombia, granted U.S. asylum from a bloody civil war thickened by heavily armed drug gangs. He understands something about insecurity, and looking around corners. “We’re not protecting criminals,” he says of Catholic Charities’ efforts. “We’re protecting families from being separated.”

When the elevator opens on John Herrera’s floor of the Catholic Charities building in Southeast Portland, arrivals face a large-print quotation from Pope Francis: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty, because it has been out on the streets.”

Or holding charlas in church basements.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 4/2/17.

05 Apr

Economic boost can drive hungry away from food stamp table

It may well be true, as songwriters and well-meaning aunts remind us, that there is always a silver lining. But it’s also inescapably true that there is always a lead lining – including for the Portland metropolitan area’s booming economy.

Prosperity-driven housing costs have sent rents through the roof and families to the fringes of town. And lately, the shining economic numbers have been darkening the prospects of Oregonians trying to keep some food on their tables.

The welfare reform act of 1996, the gift that keeps on taking, created a new food stamps category of ABAWD, which sounds like a missile defense system but means Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents – just the people whom the act’s authors suspected of shirking work and living it up on their average $115 a month in food stamps. The act limited ABAWDs to three months on the program – now called SNAP, the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program – before facing a work requirement.

For 20 years, Oregon had a waiver from this rule, because the state’s unemployment rate was above the national average. But lately, our exploding local economy has nudged us out of that position, county by county, first Multnomah and Washington and now Clackamas. It’s an achievement that might be celebrated with a banquet; the feds mark it by emptying some plates.

“In some states, they just let everybody hit the three-month limit and go away,” says Belit Burke, who manages the food stamp program for the state. “In Oregon, we don’t think that’s the right thing to do.”

Neither does the Oregon Food Bank. It’s working with the state to keep some battered Oregonians connected to a pretty bare lifeline. As the state scrambled to set up an ABAWDs work program, redirecting multiple staff hours to checking SNAP eligibility and setting up connections, the food bank scrambled to provide opportunities.

Even without meeting the work requirement, most ABAWDs will stay SNAP-eligible due to their particular situation – chronic homelessness, emotional or substance problems, caring for a handicapped or elderly relative. Some of them actually are working, but bringing in less than $935 a month. Many of those now at risk of not qualifying may not be easily employable.

“A lot of times,” points out Burke, “if you’re a single adult and need food benefits, there’s something going on in your life.”

To keep their food stamps, ABAWDs need at least five hours of community service a week, not always an easy thing to arrange. The food bank, as a qualified non-profit – or as its friends in the IRS call it, a 501 (c) (3) – wanted to provide opportunities, but it only had two locations, neither easily reached by public transportation.

Then the food bank came up with an idea.

“My team came to realize,” explains Jen Turner, regional network manager at OFB, “that our partner agencies were eligible to join the program.”

With that, the food bank could offer opportunities at not just two locations, but at food pantries all over the three counties – and if the unemployment statistics ever come to that, all over the state.
“This could be a really good opportunity for us to get volunteers,” says Deborah Mason, executive director of the Clackamas Service Center, offering food and homelessness resources. “That’s not exactly what I was expecting.”

Not many folks in the hunger world would call the federal policy inspired. It requires considerable state manpower, makes demands on people already straining to stay afloat, will save the government minimal money, and as Belit Burke points out, will be used by many states just to strip benefits. “It’s a system,” points out Turner, “that has been designed entirely to be punitive.”

But with considerable effort and ingenuity, and a determination to keep hungry people at the table, the state and the Oregon Food Bank have devised a structure to defend adult SNAP eligibility, provide some volunteer effort to stock pantry shelves, and could bring some people outside the mainstream a little closer to joining it. The process could provide a pattern if Congress attaches a work requirement to Medicaid.

Maybe there always is a silver lining.

Or maybe, with unwavering commitment, people can make something valuable out of lead.

NOTE: This column appeared on the Oregon Food Bank website, 3/29/17.

05 Apr

Americans are asking questions — in Russian

Ron Wyden, whose idea of a good time is a heated town meeting in an overheated high school gym, has noticed a certain similarity in the experience lately.

“There’s the same conversation in places that Trump carried by 20 and that Hillary carried by 20,” muses Oregon’s senior senator. “The conversation is about health care and Russia.”

Maybe because the news about Trump staff contacts with Russians can make voters feel a little queasy.
In December, U.S. intelligence agencies issued a report concluding that Russia had carried out an extensive campaign through computer hacking and its RT television network to support the campaign of Donald Trump and undermine Hillary Clinton. Since then, Americans have seen a steady stream of revelations about people connected with the Trump operation suddenly remembering meetings with Russian officials and agents.

(Since the admissions often came after previous denials, they carried an air of “Oh, you mean those Russians…”)

Wyden’s town hall audiences aren’t the only people talking about the news. Last week, Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley demanded an FBI briefing on the issue before confirming a deputy attorney general. Monday, the House intelligence committee begins its own investigation of the Russian involvement – starting with a public hearing featuring FBI director James Comey. Still ahead is a probe by the Senate intelligence committee, on which Wyden has served since the tales of Saddam Hussein’s fearsome weapons of mass destruction.

In January, Comey came to talk to the Senate committee. Recalls Wyden, “He said, ‘I can’t say anything about an investigation.’ When people were done rolling their eyes, they remembered he had plenty to say about an investigation 11 days before the election,” when Comey announced that the FBI had found more of Hillary Clinton’s emails – which turned out to be copies of emails the FBI had already seen.

Now, says Wyden, “I think James Comey needs to give the country a status report on what’s going on.”
The senator also insists that the report can be caused to happen, citing an agreement between Senate intelligence committee chairman Richard Burr and ranking Democrat Mark Warner that a Russian investigation would have subpoena power, access to classified information and open hearings – partly because, Wyden says, “I insisted on that.”

Meanwhile, looming investigations of Russia’s role in the election have been complicated by the president’s charge that President Obama wiretapped Trump’s campaign headquarters. Trump has demanded a congressional investigation to find out whether or not what he said was true. (As president, of course, he could just call up the FBI and ask, although not on Twitter.) But last week, Burr and Warner, and House intelligence chairman Devin Nunes, agreed that there was no evidence for Trump’s claim – although White House press secretary Sean Spicer said firmly that the president still believes it.

What a lot of congressional figures would still really like to hear is about the Russians.

Ron Wyden would really like to hear about them. And there is something else he really wants to see.

“If we learn from his personal tax returns that the president of the United States is putting personal interests ahead of the country, that undermines the legitimacy of the system,” he declares.
“I’m going to stay on it until we get them. It’s a battle every single day.”

Donald Trump, of course, is the first president or presidential candidate in 40 years to refuse to release his tax returns, which would tell of his business relationships, the source of his money and the locations of his debts. The numbers would help Americans, and Congress, decide whether there was some link between Trump’s personal interests and his policies and appointments.

Trump has said he couldn’t release his returns because he was under audit – although officials say that audit wouldn’t prevent release – and that he would release them as soon as he could. Lately, White House folks have been suggesting – against the polls – that only reporters care about the returns, and there’s no reason to ever make the returns public.

Wyden cares, and doesn’t think he’s alone. “It’s going to be increasingly important to people,” he says, “to see that their interests come first.”

As a senior member of the intelligence committee, which will conduct its own investigation of the Russian connection, and the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, which oversees taxes, the Oregon senator is at the intersection of the issues. He has also introduced a bill that would require presidential candidates to release their tax returns – which might have trouble getting through this Congress, and could also be vetoed by a financially reticent president.

The question, of course, is whether anything significant ight be produced by an investigation by a Republican-controlled intelligence committee, in a Congress that has trouble with just the basics, such as keeping the government open for business.

“You’re seeing a number of members of the intelligence committee speak up,” says Wyden hopefully. “Senators don’t want to be faced with constituents saying, ‘Why didn’t you get to the bottom of this?’”

Especially if the questions are being asked in heated town halls.

Or in Russian.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 3/19/17.