[This op-ed was first published in The Portland Tribune]
Many more Oregonians are going hungry this Thanksgiving than at any time in recent memory, new figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show. These numbers reveal the continued economic hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic, as the well as the need for Congress to move quickly to enact long-delayed, additional economic relief.
In a recent Census survey, half of Oregon households with children worried that they would be unable to pay for food in the next four weeks. And about one in 11 Oregonians surveyed said their household wasn’t getting enough to eat.
Food is one of the first things people cut back on when money runs short. Hunger is the canary in the coal mine of household economic distress. For cash-strapped families, food often is the first area to sacrifice. Better to reduce meals than lose the house.
Research shows that food insecurity and hunger are particularly harmful for children. For them, food insecurity and hunger increase the risk of acute and chronic physical health conditions, undermine mental health, harm brain development, and hamper school performance.
As with other impacts of the pandemic, hunger is taking a heavier toll among Black and Latino Oregonians. Some 32 percent of Black adults and 15 percent of Latino adults in Oregon reported this fall that their household sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in the past week. This compared with 7 percent of white adults.
These figures are a harsh reminder of how our public policies, past and present, have held back Black and Latino Oregonians economically, leaving them more exposed to harm from the pandemic.
The current levels of hunger stand well above those seen during the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009. At no time during the Great Recession or its aftermath did the share of Oregonians reporting not having enough food to eat exceed 7 percent. But the figure climbed to 9 percent in the most recent Household Pulse Survey, established by the Census Bureau to provide real-time data on the impact of the coronavirus crisis.
These stark numbers are sounding the alarm bell. It’s imperative that Congress respond to the untenable situation so many now face. Oregon’s congressional delegation must push for a relief package that increases food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), boosts emergency rental assistance, renews enhanced unemployment insurance benefits, and provides emergency grants for low-wage households excluded from previous federal aid.
Oregon lawmakers too need to step up. They should further supplement SNAP benefits, extend the eviction moratorium, and provide additional rent and utility assistance.
It was a step in the right direction this week when the Oregon legislature’s House Interim Committee on Housing considered legislation to extend the eviction moratorium, which expires at year’s end, for another six months. The proposal also, rightly, provides some level of rent assistance. But so far, no meeting of the full Legislature has been scheduled. It needs to convene and consider the bill, if we are to protect our children and communities from deeper hardship.
We know what policies can prevent hunger, and we have the resources to do it. What is urgently needed is for elected leaders to act for the sake of our children and communities.