Poverty in Oregon–The Governor and Oregon Business Council Get Real?
Last week I was invited to participate in a “Design Lab,” run by Portland State University’s collaborative problem solving center, Oregon Solutions. Led by former Multnomah County Chair Beverly Stein, over 50 state and national thinkers (not necessarily experts on poverty) came together to develop ideas with the goal of halving Oregon’s poverty rate by 2020. My group of eight included a recovering drug addict and long time felon, two formerly homeless women, the head of a state welfare agency, a Haitian immigrant leading social enterprise work in the Bay Area, and a couple of activists and a think tanker from DC.
Both Duncan Wyse. head of the Oregon Business Council along with Governor John Kitzhaber gave this group a three part charge: find ideas to get people out of poverty, to prevent more people from becoming impoverished and to increase prosperity in general. While addressing racial, ethnic and geographic inequities. A big lift!
In their plan for 2014, the OBC included poverty reduction as one of their top three goals, itself an unusual step for a business organization. One out of five Oregonians live below the federal poverty level (an absurdly low $23,000 a year for a family of four) with much higher levels for people of color and those living in rural areas.
The six Walton heirs (Walmart) earn more annually than the sum of all earnings of 80% of African Americans. Just because they came out of the right vagina, is there any reason for this in a country with so many homeless and hungry people? —Russell Brand on Democracy Now with Amy Goodwin
The structural roots of poverty in this country are well documented, most recently, and with a real human perspective in The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer. The de-industrialization of the US began in the late 70s, pushed by globalizing capital, leveraged buyouts and financial gambling. Oregon’s forests became assets to liquidate, and when the big trees were logged out (with help from Senator Mark Hatfield), companies like Georgia Pacific pulled out, selling mills that had been the source of many small towns’ prosperity.
I was impressed by the brilliant thinking, honest exchange of ideas and perspectives as well as a willingness to challenge assumptions about how society responds to poverty. (See the outtake below to get a small idea of the work we did.) But, the glaring gap between national economic performance and persistent under employment and poverty remained unaddressed–in the parking lot. Poorer countries than ours (think Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark–each with per capita income 20% below the US) enjoy high levels of education, free childcare, universal (and less expensive) health care along with much less inequality. Running government programs better, giving young people more information about the dangers of drug use and unplanned children won’t address a system where a local community’s lifeblood can be gambled away by a hedge fund in NYC.