04 Jun

Oregon is fertile, but not a great place to grow kids

At the rate we’re going in Oregon, the term “children in poverty” could soon be a redundancy.

Oregon now has a child poverty rate of 24 percent, with more than 52 percent of schoolkids qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, both rates higher than before the recession and above the national average. According to the Kids Count data book, Oregon has declined from the top half of states for kids to 30th.

And according to economist John Tapogna of ECONorthwest, the reality is worse than those numbers. The poverty number is a snapshot of a moment; experience over the course of a childhood shows something else.

By the time Oregon children reach their first birthday, says Tapogna, 43 percent of them will receive some form of public assistance. By their 13th birthday, the percentage reaches two-thirds. The situation contributes to, and isn’t helped by, Oregon having one of the lowest high-school completion rates in the country.

In fact, says Tapogna, the situation is a “death spiral.”

Or as Duncan Wyse, executive director of the Oregon Business Council, puts it, “If we don’t figure out a way to change the whole cycle, we’ll never affect child poverty.”

Figuring that out is a current theme of the OBC, which is seeking both short-term strategies and long-term answers. There’s a Design Lab to look at poverty issues, grants for pilot projects to raise graduation rates in Ontario, Medford and Portland, and an effort at the legislature to try to change some things at the other end of childhood. The OBC has taken a particular interest in several measures in Salem that could make some progress on child poverty: bolstering the state’s Employment Related Day Care program (helping a parent work helps a kid considerably), strengthening the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, and giving some more heft to the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, supplementing the wages of some low-income workers.

It wouldn’t be a pass to Toys-R-Us, but the package could do something for kids.

“I’ve been impressed by the business council’s focus on poverty,” said House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, Monday. In a session battered by a considerable kicker obligation, and wide demands to increase the K-12 budget, she sees a prospect of movement on a couple of the OBC goals.

Kotek hopes the session could add about $40 million to Employment Related Day Care, including allowing support to diminish gradually instead of just shutting off at a certain (not very high) income level. “Without day care,” points out Patti Whitney-Wise, executive director of the Oregon Hunger Task Force, “it’s pretty hard to work in low-wage jobs and work your way up.”

Supporters also look for some help for TANF, especially giving some support to families approaching the federally mandated 60-month cutoff, or providing some short-term assistance to let earners get or stay employed. Strengthening the Earned Income Tax Credit program will be tougher, because tax credit money is tight and needs to be found somewhere else, but there’s a chance of streamlining and simplifying the effort.

“If we get TANF and ERDC,” said Kotek, “it will be a good session for low-income families.”
Another low-income priority, increasing the Oregon minimum wage, arrived in January with a head of steam but seems to losing it as the year runs down. Kotek says it’s “definitely a late-session conversation,” while conceding there’s not that much session left. The subject might reappear in next year’s short session, or line up for space on what already looks like such a crowded 2016 ballot that Hillary Clinton might have to squeeze in.

But Whitney-Wise agrees with Kotek’s estimate of the effect of strengthening TANF and ERDC.
“If we can get both of those things substantially funded, we’ll really have made a dent,” she says. “I really appreciate the business community stepping up on this.”

That move comes from the conclusion, really not requiring sophisticated macroeconomic analysis, that having a quarter of your kids living in poverty at any one time – and most Oregon youngsters experiencing it at some point – is really not a great investment. It’s unlikely to pay off in your workforce, or in free-spending customers.

“What is the cost to the state of that level of poverty?” asks Gregg Kantor, CEO of Northwest Natural. “The weights just stack up so high that it’s a weight on our future.”
This explains part of the Oregon Business Council’s concern about Oregon’s child poverty:
It’s really not good for business.

And as it happens, it’s also not good for kids.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 6/3/15.

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