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Nearly One In Seven Oregonians Now Living In Poverty

The percentage of Oregonians living in poverty increased dramatically last year — to 14.3 percent.

That means about one-in-seven Oregonians is now seriously struggling.

It’s a level that was last seen in the 1960’s, when the nation launched a war on poverty. Kristian Foden-Vencil takes a look behind the statistics.

Elladonna Phillips, a precocious six-year-old lives in a small rented house in outer southeast Portland. Her dad, Kex Phillips, is a 51-year-old disabled veteran. Her mom, Amber Peterson-Phillips, is working towards a Social Science degree at Portland State University.

Their income falls just under the federal poverty line of $17,000 a year for a family of three.  Kex says they make do with what they can find.

Kex Phillips: “We got that chair down the street, a different street, for free. It’s a really retro chair, people would pay for that chair. And then we got the cushions in a different place where someone had taken the couch, but left the cushions.” 

He says the family lives what he calls a kind of “hunter-gatherer” existence. But Amber knows she needs exactly $1416 a month to keep things together.

Amber Peterson Phillips: “Everything is a juggle. I’m constantly having to plan a budget, keep it in a ledger and make sure and ultimately in the end we’ll be lucky if we have $20 at the end of the month. Lucky on the last day.”

Census figures on poverty for each state released Tuesday show this family is not alone.

In Oregon, 535,000 people are living in poverty. Or to put it another way, just about the entire population of Portland — within city limits.

Other census figures show Oregon’s median household income dropped — from $49,000 a year, to $48,000.

And there’s some indiciation, from another study, that the population living below the poverty line is changing.

Researcher Suzanne Porter, with Oregon State University, found that more two-partner households and full-time workers are now having problems.

She says that over the last four years for example, the number of men asking for food boxes has increased more than 70 percent.

Suzanne Porter: “The employment department has reported that the unemployment rate among men is higher and that the unemployment rate among people who had been working in construction and manufacturing is very high. And those industries employ overwhelmingly men. So that men have a higher unemployment rate right now.”

And how does Oregon compare to the rest of the nation?

We’re right in the middle. Both the national average and Oregon’s poverty rate stand at 14.3 percent.

Those levels haven’t been seen since the 1960’s, which makes it seem as though conditions in Oregon haven’t improved in 50 years.

But Trudi Renwick, a poverty expert at the U.S. Census bureau, says that’s not the case.

She points out that the government has added several safety nets since then:  like free school lunches, subsidized housing, and food stamps. But that kind of government help isn’t accounted for in the poverty figures.

That’s why, says Renwick, the Census will be introducing a new statistic next year.

Trudi Renwick: “While the current measure just looks at cash income before taxes, we’re going to look at a much more complex resource measure. It will take cash income, subtract taxes, add back in credits….. So it’s a much more complex statistic but I think it’ll do a much better job of showing the impact of government programs.” 

But, what does living in poverty really mean? The government defines it as a family of four living on about $22,000 a year.

Trudi Renwick: “It doesn’t mean you’re living on the streets. But it’s a pretty low income threshold.”

Back in southeast Portland, Amber Peterson-Phillips says that threshold means her family whittles down every expense as much as possible. They save about $300 a month on groceries in the summer by growing their own food — on land lent to them by the non-profit SnowCap.

And Amber says, they’re regularly negotiating with the utility companies.

In fact, both Amber and Kex say they’ve never really known anything other than what he calls a ‘welfare Christmas.’

Kex Phillips: “We exist fine with Welfare christmas. I want to offer that courage and hope to the rest of the people that may be losing their homes or their jobs. To stand. Be well. Look after each other. Have good faith, good courage. You can grow gardens. You can survive without a lot that you’re used to having.”

The state-by-state Census numbers put  Mississippi at the bottom of the list, with a poverty rate of 21 percent. And at the top stands New Hampshire at 8.5 percent.

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