Portland State’s Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies recently released a report on poverty in Oregon called, “Where The Ends Don’t Meet: Measuring Poverty and Self-Sufficiency Among Oregon Families.” The report was co-authored by Elizabeth Morehead, the director of research and web development at IMS, and Sheila Martin, the director of IMS. It is an updated version of a 2010 report of the same name.
Morehead is currently on leave and was unavailable for comment.
The report, Martin said, used the Self-Sufficiency Standard, a regionally-specific manner of measuring the income necessary for households to pay for basic needs, including housing, food, transportation, childcare, healthcare and taxes without subsidies.
Public subsidies include government assistance. Private subsidies include shared housing, food from food banks, and free childcare from friends or family members.
The Self-Sufficiency Standard was created in the 1990s by Dr. Diana Pearce of the Center for Women’s Welfare. The Center developed an Oregon specific standard in 2008.
It is an alternative to the Federal Poverty Level which was created in 1964 by Molly Orshansky. The FPL works under the assumption that sufficient household income can be calculated by multiplying a household’s food budget by three.
Mary King, an economics professor at PSU, said, “The [FPL], though a heroic effort when created, is just not up to the job of describing who is poor and who is not.”
By using the Standard, Morehead and Martin found that while 18 percent of Oregon households are below the FPL, 37 percent of households do not earn sufficient income to meet their basic needs without subsidies.
The number of households not meeting the standard rose about 10 percent from 2008–14.
“That is a huge number of people who have inadequate income,” said Jamin Kimmell, a student in the Master’s of Urban and Regional Planning program and a research assistant at IMS. “I think that’s the headline of this report: how many people are struggling in this region.”
“It’s not new news,” King said.
The report found that income and educational attainment are correlated, number of children in the household and income insufficiency are correlated, and that minorities suffer disproportionately from income insufficiency.
“Education and wages are so closely tied,” Martin said. “The first job you get does, in a way, affect your wage trajectory for the rest of your life.”
The rising cost of childcare
“We wanted to understand how families in Oregon are being affected by increasing costs and stagnating wages,” Martin said.
One of those increasing costs is in childcare. The average cost of childcare for one preschooler in Multnomah County jumped from an average of $618 per month in 2008 to $1,124 per month in 2014. According to the report, as the number of children in a household rises, so does income inadequacy.
Lisa Wittorff, the director of PSU’s Resource Center for Students with Children, said that about 22 percent of PSU students are parents to minor children. That is, she said, roughly 6,000 students.
There are three childcare centers for students and faculty on campus, paid for in part by student fees and in part by federal grants.
The Children’s Center in Smith Memorial Student Union is subsidized entirely by student fees. According to Center coordinator Kim Allen, it currently serves 52 students. Helen Gordon serves 118 students according to Ellie Justice, the director of the center. Little Vikings serves upward of 30 students per day, and last term they served 192 students in total.
All three childcare centers on campus allow parents to sign up for short-hour care based around students’ school schedules.
Student fees help, in part, to keep prices low.
“They help offset some of the [operating] costs,” Allen said.
The centers charge as little as $5.60 per hour per child, depending on the age of the child.
For students who can’t get into one of the on-campus childcare centers, Allen said that for full-time care for a toddler, parents can pay upward of $1,400 per month.
“It has to be [expensive]. It’s labor intensive,” King said.
The ratio of caretakers to children has to remain low in order to provide high-quality care, and so costs remain high. “But…it’s not publicly paid for or subsidized. [The U.S. is] unusual in not putting more public dollars into childcare,” King said.
PSU’s Resource Center for Students with Children runs a subsidy program, the Jim Sells Child Care Assistance Program. The subsidy will pay for anywhere from 10–50 percent of the cost of childcare at both on-and off-campus childcare centers for qualifying parents.
The program is completely funded by the student incidental fee. It received about $580,000 this year. It is able to serve about 300 students per term.
“Right now we’re able to give [funding] to everyone who applies who qualifies,” Wittorff said. “But when childcare costs $2,000 and you get 50 percent covered, you still have to come up with $1,000.”
“The relative cost of childcare for children under three in Oregon is the highest in the nation,” Wittorff said. “Relative to income, that is.”
Martin said access to childcare can be the difference between someone being able to attend college or not.
Disproportionate income insufficiency in communities of color
The IMS report found that communities of color are disproportionately affected by income insufficiency.
Latinos account for approximately 8.5 percent of Oregon’s population. 23.3 percent of Latinos are below the FPL. 36.7 percent are above the FPL but below the Standard. In total, 60 percent of the Latino population in Oregon make insufficient income to meet their basic needs without subsidies.
The black population makes up roughly 1.8 percent of the total Oregon population. 32.9 percent are below the FPL. 20.1 percent are above the FPL but below the Standard. In total, 53 percent of the black population is below the Standard.
“You can’t say that there’s one factor driving it,” Martin said. “There’s a whole load of factors.”
“You’ve got the impact of discrimination, current and historical, and you’ve got the impact of residential segregation, which is very high still based on ethnicity,” King said.
More than 40 percent of fall term 2014’s incoming freshman class were students of color. Of those students, approximately 40 percent identify as Latino. That brings the percentage of Latino students at PSU to about 10 percent of the total student body.
“The thing that PSU can do—is become more intentional across the board in the recruitment of students of color,” said Tony Funchess, multi-cultural affairs director for Associated Students of PSU. “Yes…we tout a 40 percent diversity rate for our incoming freshmen. However, we consistently and repeatedly have a 3 percent enrollment for African Americans. What are we doing to increase that?”
Funchess added that he doesn’t see PSU doing much to retain students of color. He said that PSU focuses on input, not outcome.
Funchess clarified that he is not speaking on behalf of ASPSU. “I’m heated up,” he said.
“We have to become more intentional about retaining those students while they’re here,” Funchess added.
“[PSU] prides itself on the students of color that are here. It’s key to not lose sight of the programs that are going to help them, because a lot of them do need extra support that maybe a traditional college student might not need,” said Pedro S. Torres, program coordinator at La Casa Latina.
Torres said that there is a direct correlation between student involvement and student success. “We are really trying to get students into our spaces…pushing them to get involved.”
Torres said that he sees good things happening at PSU.
“I’ve seen the commitment of the people I’ve met to really support these students,” Torres said.
Right now La Casa Latina, Torres said, serves a dual purpose.
“On the one hand, it’s to make students more aware of social issues that might affect them…it’s educating them,” he said. “A lot of times [we’re] pushing them to get involved.”
“With our front desk workers, we have some systems in place to try to professionalize them as much as we can,” Torres said. “We offer them a certain set of hours where they can do training on campus…usually through [Advising and Career Services],” Torres said.
Giving them these skills, he said, will help them later in life.
La Casa Latina is fully funded by student fees and cannot provide scholarships to the students who use the space.
“There are students that, quite frankly, if they don’t get scholarships, they don’t go to school,” Torres said.
“The people who are more concerned about taking on debt are lower-income [individuals] and communities of color, because they justifiably have less confidence that they’ll be able to earn enough in the future to pay that off,” King said.
“I think [to help students]…to really bolster the programs that are already here and to create new ones so that students feel that there really is an investment on the part of the university in retaining and having them here,” Torres said. “Because it’s not enough to just accept, you know, the highest percentage incoming class of color. You have to help them once they’re here, and you have to help them finish.”
PSU spending on helping low-income students
“Student debt is just such a looming issue,” King said. “It makes it so much harder for people both in the moment to make decisions about going to school and saying in school, and what people’s fears are in the long-term.”
According to the PSU website, 69 percent of students receive some sort of financial aid.
“Certainly [PSU might] help with housing—making housing affordable,” Wifforff said. “Although there are spaces on campus for students to live with their children, it can be more expensive because they get charged for their spouse.”
There are also federal programs, such as TRiO, in place to help low-income students. TRiO is a program intended to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds succeed in higher education.
Lind Liu, the director for TRiO’s Student Support Services, said that PSU has four TRiO programs.
1,083 low income and/or first generation high school and undergraduate students participate in four programs that offer student development and support and financial assistance. All programs are fully funded by the federal government.
“While PSU does not match the funding, they do support us in indirect ways such as providing space for our students, general office supplies [and] technology upgrades,” Liu said.
Student fees help fund programs such as the Jim Sells Child Care subsidy and student centers such as the Multicultural Center and La Casa Latina, which help retain students from marginalized populations.
Funchess said that student resource centers create breathing space for communities of color and marginalized communities who otherwise have to navigate a largely white community.
“What cultural centers do is create a space where those individuals can, for lack of a better term, take the mask off,” Funchess said. “They can relax. They can find community…That shared experience creates a bond that strengthens the individual to go back out into the world, to go back out into academia and be successful.”
Resource centers, he continued, give marginalized students and communities of color access to academic, cultural and individual support that they wouldn’t otherwise get at PSU, which is 60 percent white.
“Last year, I took 82 students to the Oregon Students of Color Conference,” he continued. “It was a beast to get dollars so that students who are traditionally marginalized and locked out of leadership positions were able to receive top notch leadership training.”
“I shouldn’t have to fight to get dollars to support students,” Funchess said.
King said that PSU’s funding is limited.
“It is a very lean operation,” King said. “Though I wouldn’t argue that all the money is going to the right places.”
“There’s never going to be, in that budget, a lot of money, and other players need to step up,” King said.
King said the state used to pay 70 percent of the cost of higher education and students paid the remaining 30. In the past 20 years, she said, that ratio has reversed.
“One of the things we have to do [at IMS] is dispel myths,” Martin said.
Though income insufficiency disproportionately affects marginalized communities, Martin said this report might change the perception of who is poor.
“Those who are below the Standard…90 percent are citizens, 75 percent are white, half have children, half do not. 17 percent have a bachelor’s degree…Only 23 percent of households have no workers. 94 percent of them are getting no public assistance,” she said.
Martin said that, though IMS does not prescribe policies, they release these reports to foster regional collaboration, in the hope that they can promote understanding and advocacy across jurisdictions.
“The conversation that we started is how to measure poverty and what the implications are,” Kimmell said.
“This is a problem beyond PSU,” King said.