Report: Oregon economy slow to recover

Statesman Journal
September 1, 2013By Peter Wong

Three women from Salem are getting work experience at Marion-Polk Food Share — and occasional emergency food boxes — but what they really want are jobs.

On this Labor Day weekend, they are not alone.

Despite a slowly recovering job market, as reported by state economists in their quarterly forecast last week, a new think-tank report says that Oregon is still years away from providing all the jobs sought by thousands of people without them.

“Labor Day is a day we should be able to know we have great jobs and a great economy — but we don’t,” said Shay Knapp of Salem, who lives with her 13-year-old son.

Knapp, Monica Hernandez and Kelly Murphy are gaining experience at Marion-Polk Food Share, one of Oregon’s 20 regional food banks, as a way to re-enter the work force. The work is subsidized by the state’s Jobs Plus program, which attempts to move welfare recipients to work with public and private employers.

But the social safety net by government and nonprofit agencies has worn thin with the heavy demands from years of the downturn.

“I was this close to living in my car with my children,” said Murphy, a mother of two, including a 20-year-old son looking for work. “Even though I had food stamps, I would have had no refrigerator to put the food in. It’s hard to live day to day, but a lot of us are doing it.”

Although the technical end to the national recession was in mid-2009, a new report issued by the Oregon Center for Public Policy — a think tank based in Silverton — projects that it will take until 2018 for Oregon to make up the lost jobs.

Its report, timed to coincide with Labor Day, includes not only the 72,000 jobs actually lost since December 2007 but the estimated 106,000 jobs that should have been created to keep up with population growth during the period.

“The Great Recession dug an even deeper hole than the recession of the early 1980s, and the recovery is taking longer than in previous recessions,” said Jason Gettel, the policy analyst who prepared the numbers for the report.

Although the peak unemployment rate was higher in the 1980s, the number of jobs declined just 6 percent from its peak, and the recovery was swifter. Gettel said in this downturn, the number of jobs declined 7 percent from the peak and is recovering at an average rate of 1.1 percent annually since 2009.

Learning skills Knapp is seeking to re-enter the work force after caring for her parents for six years, when her father paid her as a full-time caregiver and Social Security benefits were paid after her son’s father died. But both her parents have died, and the survivor benefits will end when her son turns 18.

“I need to know I am going to be able to survive and take care of myself,” she said. “But I’m 48. There are lots of younger people out there who need jobs, too — and a lot of times, the younger are hired before the older.”

Murphy had been an apartment manager, supervising crews and doing office work. She also did data entry at Fabral Inc., a metal manufacturer, and worked twice for Selectemp employment services.

But her last job was three years ago — and there is a felony on her record.

“I’ve been turned down because either I’m overqualified or underqualified, for lack of education,” she said.

Murphy is volunteer coordinator at the food bank.

Hernandez has not worked in four years. Two years ago, she earned the equivalent of a high school diploma, and now, she is in the work experience part of Jobs Plus.

“Employers do not like to see an application that you have no recent work experience,” she said. “For more jobs, one of the first things they look at is whether you have a GED (high school equivalent).”

During the work experience period, participants live off what is paid by their employers.

“It was different at first,” Hernandez said. “But when you work, I guess you become a happier person. You have something to do every day.”

Their tasks at Marion-Polk Food Share vary, but typically involve working with others, dealing with the public, operating equipment, using computers and taking stock of inventory.

Answer to joblessness Although the report by the Oregon Center for Public Policy offers a bleak outlook, “there are some things we can do in the short term to blunt the effects on the job market,” Gettel said. “There are some things we can do in the long term for us to have stronger economic growth.”

Among actions that state lawmakers and the governor can take:

Extend unemployment benefits to part-time workers, who are now ineligible if they seek just part-time work. Oregon did not make this change when lawmakers acted in 2009 to obtain additional federal unemployment benefits that Congress made available to states as incentives.

Make child care more available and reduce its cost: “It should not be a barrier to people getting work, and providing child care is also a way to get people back to work.”

Expand short-term training incentives such as completing high school, enrolling in community colleges, and obtaining National Career Readiness Certificates; for the latter, Oregon recently surpassed the 25,000 mark.

Beef up education: “In the long term, providing a more educated work force lays the groundwork for the economy to be more productive, and leads to higher median wages for workers.”

But the think tank has been opposed to most tax breaks as incentives for economic growth.

“There is no real evidence that cutting taxes leads to job growth,” Gettel said. “They make the state less able to provide services that people need in a weak job market. They also translate into less spending and fewer workers in the public sector.”

Government employment, along with construction, are the two sectors that continue to lag in Oregon’s recovery, according to Oregon Employment Department statistics.

However, Gettel said state actions can affect the recovery only a little.

“If the goal is to get people back to work now, there’s no substitute for strong federal action,” he said. But given the political gridlock in Washington, Gettel is not an optimist.

Answer to hunger In the meantime, the number of families served by emergency food boxes that Marion-Polk Food Share distributes through its network of 97 organizations has almost doubled since mid-2007 — although it is tapering off.

“The increase in need has slowed; that’s the good news,” said Phil McCorkle, food share vice president of development. “But the rest of the story is that each increase has taken us to record levels. Like an ocean liner, when you are talking about an issue as big as hunger, it’s not going to turn around instantly.”

Although the trends started before the recession, government contributions of money and food to Marion-Polk Food Share have dwindled. Government now accounts for 10 percent of the agency’s operating budget, and on a five-year average, 14 percent of its food supplies, mostly in the form of U.S. Department of Agriculture commodities.

Even USDA commodities, once a mainstay of anti-hunger programs, are in limbo because of the political standoff in Congress over renewal of federal farm programs. “Fourteen percent of 8.2 million pounds is still a lot,” McCorkle said.

But the increased demand for emergency food has been met by contributions from the food industry — McCorkle said Truitt Bros., Norpac, Kettle Foods and the WinCo distribution center in Woodburn have been major donors — and by dairy and meat products past their sell-by date donated from the big grocery chains.

Cash donations from the community also have enabled Marion-Polk Food Share to buy food in bulk. McCorkle said there has been a slow increase since 2007.

“If they had gone down, how would we have responded to the need?” he said. “I think it’s a realization on the part of people that because of the economy, there is a lot of need. I’d love it if there was a year when the need went down.”

Still, McCorkle concluded, there is one ultimate answer.

“The No. 1 way to fight hunger is jobs,” he said. “Until we see the employment situation improve, we are going to have a lot of hungry people out there.”

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