Hunger in Oregon

Commentary
December 29, 1999By Michael Leachman
People are not supposed to go hungry in America or in Oregon, but they do. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently estimated that 5.8 percent of all Oregon households live with hunger due to insufficient money for food. Moreover, according to the USDA, an additional 6.8 percent of households in the state survive on the verge of hunger, even in these times of good economic health. In total, over 400,000 Oregonians are struggling to put food on the table. Oregon's hunger rate is the worst in the nation.

That ranking shocked many Oregon policy makers, but the fact that large numbers of Oregonians are food insecure and hungry is, sadly, old news. Using a survey method less sophisticated and less accurate than the method employed by the USDA, the 1998 Oregon Population Survey found that 119,000 Oregonians do not have enough to eat, and that an additional 592,000 are not eating the kinds of food they want.

Hunger in Oregon of this magnitude demands action, but no policy proposals have been forthcoming from the Governor's office. Instead, his office has spent its time questioning the USDA findings, noting that the Oregon Population Survey numbers don't seem quite as bad as the USDA's.

Of course, this tactic directs attention away from Oregon's number one ranking in the USDA report, but more importantly ignores many thousands of hungry Oregonians. Just how many children in the state are going hungry while State officials quibble over the count?

If they looked into the data, the quibbling would end. USDA's data is more reliable than the Oregon Population Survey, in part because USDA collected a lot more information. Respondents to the USDA survey were asked 18 questions about the food situation in their homes, while those who answered the Oregon Population Survey answered just one question.

In addition, the US Census Bureau administered the USDA survey, while a private consulting firm handled the Oregon Population Survey. With too few resources at its disposal, the consulting firm was only able to conduct a telephone survey. The Census Bureau, on the other hand, sampled a more representative portion of Oregon's population, including households too poor to own a working phone. As a result, the USDA's count of the State's hungry is more accurate.

The Census survey used to gather the USDA's data is the same one Oregon relies upon for a variety of purposes, including unemployment figures. Those who criticize the survey's hunger findings use it to report unemployment.

Poor and low income Oregonians are working hard to put food on the table, but the rising costs of living, and high unemployment in rural communities, are forcing many of them to go hungry. Record numbers of families are pouring into food banks, even as the state-run, federally funded food stamp program fails to respond the increased need.

In 1991, the state legislature set a goal of ending hunger in Oregon by the year 2000. Nevertheless, Oregon's many hungry families are approaching the new millennium on empty stomachs. What are we going to do? Tell them we question the data?

Michael Leachman is a policy analyst with the Oregon Center for Public Policy, and author of an OCPP report entitled How Many Hungry Oregonians? Measuring Food Insecurity and Hunger (PDF). He can be reached by writing OCPP, P.O. Box 7, Silverton, OR 97381, or by sending e-mail to mleachman (at) ocpp.org

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