Opinion: Oregon's struggling economy needs a long-term plan
Oregon needs an economic recovery plan. It's time we stop limiting ourselves by following only the day-to-day news of the virus and look ahead to our future.
To be sure, there is better weather ahead as springtime dries the rain. Our unemployment rate continues to fall rapidly along with national numbers, as Oregonians get vaccinated and our service sector begins to re-open.
Manufacturing in Oregon has rebounded and corporate earnings have remained strong. What was once expected to be a massive $2 billion budget deficit has closed dramatically, and now projects above where we were pre-pandemic. This means we should be able avoid painful budget cuts to vital state services and jobs.
There is much to be thankful for in these numbers — but they don't tell the full story. A deeper dive shows that the structural inequality that plagued our economy before the virus continues to pose serious challenges to our long-term growth.
When it comes to hunger, almost 300,000 Oregon adults report not having enough food to eat. An estimated 124,000 are behind on their rent. And roughly 31% report having difficulty covering basic household expenses.
Our communities of color were both more likely to contract the virus, and more likely to be hurt by shuttered businesses.
A disconnected economy
In short, the household economy for many Oregonians is completely disconnected from our broader economic markers. Yet those wealthier households, particularly those invested in the stock market, saw big gains in 2020 and large companies rode out the pandemic in mostly strong shape.
And so we find that total personal income is higher today than it was prior to the pandemic, despite Oregon having 160,000 fewer jobs.
Think about that for a second. Our total personal income is higher today than it was in February 2020, even though we have 160,000 fewer jobs in our state.
Those at the bottom who were already struggling to pay their bills, have borne the brunt of this pandemic-driven recession. Additionally, the pandemic was absolutely devastating for thousands of small businesses and their employees, particularly for women and minority owned businesses.
And one of the most concerning impacts of the virus is that the number of long-term unemployed (those who have been looking for work for more than 6 months) ballooned from 13,000 to 60,000.
No matter if I'm talking to small businesses in the Portland area, or in Roseburg, or on the other side of the mountains, I consistently hear that one of the biggest challenges that small businesses and their employees faced was shuttered schools.
Thousands of Oregonians, most of them women, found it impossible to both hold down jobs and support their kids' learning at home. Instead, many chose to drop out of the workforce, at least until schools reopened.
This hurts employers. This hurts families' finances, and this hurts the long-term financial well-being of these women.
It also hurts our long-term competitiveness as well as small-business growth. What's more, it risks our ability to maintain a competitive and well-trained work force. For example, enrollment at community colleges, a critical stepping-stone to the middle class and jobs that can support a family, fell nearly 25% last year.
Many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds have been forced to postpone or abandon their education to help provide for their families, or to stay home with their younger siblings while their parents are at work.
My conversations with school leaders are also pretty sobering. They are blunt — we are only just now starting to get our arms around some of these challenges. There are kids who just disappeared from our formal system of schooling — and it is going to take concerted efforts by school districts and the state to bring them back.
An optimistic vision
We need a long-term plan for how we are going to grow the economy. And grow it in a more equitable, sustainable, and just manner.
The key to safely and fully re-opening our economy is a combination of mass vaccination and re-opening schools. With the state's decision to vaccinate educators and staff early, and with the Biden Administration sending $1.1 billion to Oregon via the American Rescue Plan we are on the path to do this.
To rebuild our economy, we also need to make real investments in infrastructure, high-speed Internet and clean energy, and we need to stay focused on helping Oregonians remain competitive in a global economy.
We must further expand access to community college and vocational schools for Oregonians who need to land good-paying jobs. And we should be supporting expanded apprenticeship opportunities, particularly for people of color who have traditionally been excluded from those pathways.
As we emerge from the public health restrictions, I think we need to have some honest conversations about what it will take to make Oregon a more prosperous and equitable state.
It won't happen naturally.
It won't happen if we continue to see pitched battles between the business community and labor unions.
It won't happen if businesses are hesitant to invest in Portland because we can't ensure the safety of their employees or customers.
It won't happen if residents outside of our urban centers see government as something to be distrusted, opposed, and de-funded.
It won't happen without private sector investments, and public sector cooperation.
It won't happen if we continue to leave too many talented people on the sideline.
It will only happen if we bring people together around a shared long-term vision of Oregon where everyone has a chance at success. I'm optimistic that we can coalesce around that vision and build real momentum toward it. This is what we must all help to do.
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