A Better Oregon

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Each day this week, we’re releasing a chapter from a paper Our Oregon’s Dr. Daniel Morris wrote called “A Better Oregon” – it’s an analysis of Oregon’s economy, it’s a road map to policy solutions that could improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of Oregonians and it’s an alternative vision to the policies we need to improve our economic health. We hope it serves as a voice in the conversation about which steps we take to improve the state we love. Today’s first section is an introduction to the report.

A Better Oregon

Introduction

Oregon’s economy is a story of opposites. Gross state product has grown three times faster than the U.S. economy, but most families have seen their real income drop over the past decade. Unemployment and underemployment rates remain high, and Oregon’s recovery from the 2008 recession has been slow. Though some metro areas are seeing promising growth in high wage jobs, most of the new jobs elsewhere in the state pay only low wages, or are part-time only. Corporate profits soar and the rich are getting richer, but over 1 million Oregonians received food stamp in 2013.

Oregon’s economy isn’t working for most Oregonians, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Oregon could improve our economy and help working families at the same time if voters and state leaders take action. Identifying what is needed is not rocket science, and in the next year we could implement a number of proposals to improve the well being of hundreds of thousands. Here at Our Oregon, we’ve been collecting the myriad ideas that could fix Oregon’s economy – but we’re just one of many groups working to outline well-researched solutions to our unique state challenges. Over the next couple of weeks, we plan to share some of our best ideas, why they work for the economy and why they’re better than some of the other proposals floating in the public sphere. Our proposals aim to make population level change – lasting change for every Oregonian – which is no easy task. But we’re confident that if Oregon were to lead the country on this work, we could also lead the country in having the robust, middle class economy that so many deserve. Our list is not an exhaustive list of what will work – but it’s a start. Here are just some of the proposals that could make a difference: 

Raise the minimum wage. Minimum wage jobs aren’t just for teenagers—many working adults make the minimum wage or not much more. The erosion of wages in Oregon has hurt our economy and slowed the recovery from the recession. To improve Oregon’s economy for all we need to raise wages. Oregon should start by phasing in a significant minimum wage increase, to bring the minimum wage up to a living wage. As time goes on we should strive to create jobs and set standards that allow families to support themselves.

Paid sick leave. Getting sick shouldn’t mean losing your job. Nationwide 39% of private-sector workers and 80% of low-income workers have no paid sick days from their job. Only 31% of Oregon employers offer paid sick leave to full-time, non-management employees. Allowing people to earn sick time while working will benefit many workers and their families, strengthen Oregon’s economy, and keep everyone healthier.

Fair pay. In every state, women average lower wages than men. Not only is this unfair, but it creates additional hardships for single parents, most of whom are women. Wage theft—when employers illegally withhold pay or benefits from workers—is another pervasive problem. We should aggressively fight wage discrimination, ensure people are fairly compensated for their work, and bar retaliation against workers who want their fair pay.

• Retirement security. When people can look forward to a secure retirement, they know they will be able to continue to contribute to the economy and not be a financial burden to their family or taxpayers. Unfortunately, many people have little in retirement savings and are facing a bleak future. Helping people build retirement savings helps us all.

• Preserve workers’ rights. When workers can organize and advocate for themselves, they earn better wages and improve working conditions. Wealthy CEOs and big corporations are trying to erode workers’ rights in order to boost profits that are already at record levels. We need to preserve and expand the rights of workers in today’s economy.

• Childcare should not be an obstacle to work. Oregon has the least affordable childcare in the country, which puts a huge burden on working parents. Difficulty securing affordable childcare keeps many from working. Expanding Employment Related Day Care and tax credits for childcare for working families will allow more people to go to work.

• Improve the safety net.  The transition off public assistance can be abrupt—a small gain in wages can mean losing hundreds of dollars a month in food and childcare support. Families can also lose support before they have been able to build up a cushion to buffer against the next setback, putting them at high risk of needing the safety net again. According to a survey done by the Federal Reserve, only 48% of Americans could completely cover a hypothetical $400 emergency expense without selling something or borrowing money. Extending benefits to smooth the transition off public assistance makes sense.

• Hold corporations accountable when they take advantage of the safety net.  Profitable corporations like Walmart and McDonald’s maintain a part-time, low wage workforce, boosting corporate profits while paying workers so little they must rely on taxpayer-supported safety net programs to get by. We should make the largest employers profiting off low wages pay a fee to offset the costs of safety net services to make sure their employees can provide for their families.

• Fix crumbling infrastructure and restore public services. We all benefit from clean air, safe drinking water, goods roads, and bridges that aren’t in danger of collapse. Corporate executives cite strong transportation infrastructure as a key factor in decisions where to locate businesses. Cuts to state services and delayed maintenance of infrastructure threaten Oregon’s economic future. Besides putting people to work in jobs that can’t be outsourced, these investments will set the stage for a robust economy in the years ahead.

• “Ban the box”. Thousands of Oregonians with criminal histories face job and housing discrimination, making it harder for them to succeed in their communities. Application form questions about prior arrests or convictions make it easy to dismiss people without consideration, even when they are ready and able to be a productive member of the community. People of color are especially affected due to discriminatory arrest and prosecution practices. Banning questions on prior arrests or convictions on application forms will give more Oregonians a fair chance.

Improving the economic conditions for all Oregonians is step one. In addition, Oregon needs to make new investments in education and services to ensure the economy grows in the years ahead. A complete economic plan for Oregon needs to include support and resources for high quality childcare, pre-K, kindergarten through grade 12, community college and four-year colleges. Some topline needs to make Oregon’s education stronger:

• Expand Early Education. Aside from starting kids on a good path, early learning programs like Head Start free up parents to participate in the labor force. Currently not all eligible families are able to participate in Head Start, due to lack of funding. Making available universal pre-K services to all 35,000 3 and 4 year olds living in poverty would be a wise investment in Oregon’s future.

• Invest in K-12 education. Hire back the thousands of laid-of teachers Oregon has lost in the last decade, reduce class sizes, and extend the school year to at least the minimum 180 days required by most states. When we provide more education, our kids will do better.

• Restore career and technical education programs. These programs provide a path to good jobs for many students who otherwise would not succeed in school. Hundreds of Career and Technical Education programs have been cut around the state and should be restored.

• Restore funding to community colleges. Community colleges provide valuable opportunities for Oregonians to develop career skills and prepare for higher education. Investing more in community colleges will allow more communities to develop training programs to meet current business staffing needs.

• Make higher education affordable. Tuition at state universities has been rising much faster than inflation, as the state disinvested in higher education. Higher tuitions mean more students graduate with burdensome debt, or worse, end up with debt but no diploma. Instead of more loans, we should invest in more student aid and reduced tuitions. This will benefit Oregon families and allow more graduates to build their savings and spend more to grow the economy.

We welcome the opportunity to have a conversation about the policies and investments that will best improve Oregon’s economy for all Oregonians. Other groups have also proposed ideas for reducing poverty and improving Oregon’s economy. Some of our analysis includes some critiques of other proposals. Some ideas are good and just need funding. Others are misguided and should be avoided. Our posts here are designed to use research and facts to help inform the full conversation.

One key report we analyze is the The Path to Prosperity from the Oregon Business Plan. In their own words, “The Oregon Business Plan is an effort led by Oregon’s business community to create 25,000 new jobs in Oregon each year, raise Oregon’s per capita income above the national average, and reduce poverty below 10% by 2020.  The Plan is a collaborative effort among business leaders and associations, public sector partners, and nonprofit and community organizations.” We share these goals, and agree that some of their proposals are worth pursuing. However, we believe the facts show some of the policies proposed by the Oregon Business Plan will not help us reach these shared goals.

In many cases, the devil is in the details. We want to see more jobs, but good jobs, not just more low wage, part-time work. We want to see personal income increase, but not if the per capita average only goes up because gains to millionaires outweigh the losses of working people. We want to see fewer Oregonians living in poverty, but we want to get there by improving the economy for everyone in the state, not just by nudging people above an arbitrary line.

Who we help and how we get there matters. We hope our conversation about Oregon’s economy adds to the discussion policy makers need to find the right path to help the most people. Here’s a brief outline of our series of posts:

The true story about Oregon’s economy. Our middle class is shrinking and more people than ever before work for low wages that force families to turn to state assistance to make ends meet. Some groups, like the Oregon Business Plan, blame technology for Oregon’s shrinking middle class. While it is true that advancing technology has made some jobs unnecessary, that is only one piece of the story. The more important reason families are struggling in this economy is that big corporations have slashed wages and benefits and outsourced so many American jobs overseas. Cutting labor costs was done to boost corporate profits, and those profits have gone mostly to the Top 1%. This is the story of our “economic recovery.” While the erosion of jobs, wages and benefits has left the U.S. economy in bad shape, the wealth of the top 1% continues to grow and grow. In our next post we tell another side of the story about Oregon’s economy and the challenges we face.

Long lasting change. Post number two dives deeper into the Path to Prosperity report and tackles some of their assumptions that call their conclusions into question. Specifically we focus on the large population of families who are struggling to make ends meet, and what exactly will help bring that large community true population-level change. We propose policies that tackle the root causes of poverty in Oregon and discuss why that’s a wiser approach than pilot projects and small interventions for individuals.

An economy that works for all Oregonians. In our third post, we discuss in depth one pillar of our plan for a stronger Oregon economy – game-changing investments in education. In this post, we challenge the idea that poverty reduction and education improvements have to be done on a small scale. This is the position taken by the Oregon Business Plan, because they omit Oregon’s options for raising revenues to fund real change efforts. Oregon has the country’s lowest business taxes, with many profitable out-of-state corporations paying only a pittance for the privilege of doing business in the state. If those big corporations paid their fair share Oregon could afford to invest in the education, infrastructure and public services that help grow the economy and provide all with a better quality of life.

The path forward. In our final post, we discuss how to raise funds fairly to fund true poverty reduction while protecting Oregon businesses.

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