Stuck: running in place in Oregon

I work in Hillsboro, OR where evidence of a strong economy is everywhere. It’s tempting to assume that family income must be growing by leaps and bounds in Washington County, too, and to extrapolate and assume all is well statewide.

Not so much.

In fact, even Washington County isn’t doing that great, despite the presence of Intel, which has been growing like kudzu, feverishly sprouting buildings and good jobs.

Way back, growth in the U.S. economy was accompanied by income increases across the board, improving the lot of the poor and expanding the middle class. Everybody shared in the rising tide.

middle_class_family

But that hasn’t been happening for a long time. Now a lot of people find themselves working harder, but just treading water.

“Over the past 25 years, the (U.S.) economy has grown 83 percent, after adjusting for inflation — and the typical family’s income hasn’t budged,” according to a recent analysis by the Washington Post. “In that time, corporate profits doubled as a share of the economy. Workers today produce nearly twice as many goods and services per hour on the job as they did in 1989, but as a group, they get less of the nation’s economic pie.”

The result? In 81 percent of America’s counties, median family income is lower today than it was 15 years ago, the Post analysis revealed.

What about in Oregon? I decided to look deeper. The data shows that in 25 Oregon counties, the inflation-adjusted median family income is lower today than it was 15 years ago.

That’s true even in Washington County where median household income, adjusted for inflation, actually peaked in 1999 at $72,787. That year was also the peak for such wildly dispersed counties as Clackamas, Deschutes and Malheur.

The situation is even worse in counties such as Baker and Lake where median family income, adjusted for inflation, hit its peak 35 years ago.

If you really want to hit bottom, there are six counties, including Curry, Lane and Wheeler, where medium family income, adjusted for inflation, peaked 45 years ago. That’s right, almost half a century ago, when Richard Nixon was inaugurated President and the Apollo 11 astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr., took their first walk on the moon.

So what we have in Oregon is an economy in which few of us are really better off economically then we were years ago.

Here’s the county-by-county breakdown of when median household income, adjusted for inflation, peaked in each of Oregon’s 36 counties and the level at which it peaked.

Oregon-county-map

County Peak Year Amount
Hood River 2013 $56,725
Sherman 2009 $52,664
Washington 1999 $72,787
Clackamas 1999 $72,264
Columbia 1999 $63,555
Yamhill 1999 $62,070
Polk 1999 $59,218
Benton 1999 $58,558
Deschutes 1999 $58,159
Multnomah 1999 $57,733
Marian 1999 $56,673
Linn 1999 $52,326
Crook 1999 $50,759
Jackson 1999 $50,734
Clatsop 1999 $50,289
Jefferson 1999 $49,678
Tillamook 1999 $48,026
Wallowa 1999 $44,726
Josephine 1999 $43,406
Malheur 1999 $42,525
Morrow 1979 $57,126
Wasco 1979 $54,645
Harney 1979 $54,318
Umatilla 1979 $50,513
Lake 1979 $49,714
Grant 1979 $48,786
Union 1979 $48,006
Lincoln 1979 $47,053
Baker 1979 $42,760
Lane 1969 $52,736
Coos 1969 $52,171
Gilliam 1969 $49,892
Klamath 1969 $49,511
Curry 1969 $49,042
Wheeler 1969 $40,675

SOURCES: U.S. Census and American Community Survey. Amounts in 2013 dollars.

Merkley loses

As of Oct. 15, 2014, Senator Jeff Merkley’s Leadership PAC had given out contributions to other Senate Democrats running for office in Nov. 2014. Based on the results of the election, he didn’t make very good investments. And now he’s going to be in the minority, too. Tough luck.

merkleySenate

Total to Democrats: $91,000
Total to Republicans: $0

Recipient Total

Begich, Mark (D-AK) $10,000 LOST
Braley, Bruce (D-IA) $ 1,500 LOST
Coons, Chris (D-DE) $ 5,000 LOST
Franken, Al (D-MN) $ 5,000
Grimes, Alison (D-KY) $ 5,000 LOST
Hagan, Kay R (D-NC) $ 7,500 LOST
Landrieu, Mary L (D-LA) $ 7,500 WILL LOSE
Markey, Ed (D-MA $ 2,000
Nunn, Michelle (D-GA) $ 5,000 LOST
Peters, Gary (D-MI) $ 1,500
Pryor, Mark (D-AR) $ 7,500 LOST
Reed, Jack (D-RI) $ 5,000
Schatz, Brian (D-HI) $ 2,500
Shaheen, Jeanne (D-NH) $ 7,500
Udall, Mark (D-CO) $ 5,000 LOST
Udall, Tom (D-NM) $ 3,500
Walsh, John (D-MT) $ 5,000 WITHDREW
Warner, Mark (D-VA) $ 5,000

Based on data released by the FEC on October 25, 2014.
Center for Responsive Politics.

Giving the workforce a ride

By Bill MacKenzie

 If we want people to be at work instead of on welfare, small initiatives can make a big difference.

Emelia Moreno knows that.

When a used truck she owned was totaled in an accident, the insurance payment didn’t cover the full amount of the loan still due, leaving her owing $6,000. So when she bought a used Saturn to replace the truck, she added the $6,000 to a new $11,000 loan. That created a burdensome $17,000 loan from AmeriCredit, a General Motors subsidiary that offers auto loans to financially challenged “sub-prime customers.”

To make things worse, the loan had a punishing interest rate of about 35 percent, translating into initial monthly payments of $390 … which rose to $426.98 when she missed some payments.

Emelia Moreno (not her real name) is a single mother who grew up in south central Los Angeles and now works for a social services agency in Hillsboro. In the beginning, she figured she could handle the monthly payments on her car, but eventually they overwhelmed her.

“I couldn’t refinance because I owed more than the car was worth,” she said. “I was juggling my bills. Then I learned my employer planned to cut my work hours from 40 a week to 32.”

Compounding her troubles, she was caring for a daughter born with heart problem who required continuing medical care involving specialists and an extensive regimen of drugs.

“I got to a point where I just couldn’t make it, where I wanted to say, ‘OK, take my car. I just can’t make the payment anymore,’” Moreno said.

That was when a co-worker told Moreno about the “Ways to Work” program under the umbrella of Portland-based nonprofit called Metropolitan Family Service. The program helps low- and moderate-income individuals buy, refinance or repair cars with loans at reasonable rates.

According to the Urban Institute, families without cars often find it difficult to find a good job, get to work and stay in the work force — particularly in spread out suburbs. People without vehicles also have problems meeting their family’s needs, such as getting to and from medical appointments and childcare facilities and dealing with emergencies. Transportation difficulties may also limit where people look for or consider working.

It is to Hillsboro’s economic advantage, therefore, that residents have access to cars.

Moreno took her first step toward car contentment by scheduling a meeting with Abby Wood, Ways to Work’s program coordinator. Wood told Moreno to bring her current $9,000 loan balance down to $8,000 (all Ways to Work would refinance) and to draw up a budget.

When Moreno finally whittled down her existing loan, Ways to Work offered to refinance her car with an $8,000 loan at 8 percent, repayable at $150 a month.

So far, Moreno is another success story for Ways to Work.

In other situations, such as when clients seek a loan to buy a used car, Ways to Work teaches them how to do it.

“The financial part is important, but learning how to buy a used vehicle is a really important thing to learn,” said Wood. “A lot of people who come to our program have no idea that they have a choice of what car to buy; that they have the option of taking the car to be checked out before they purchase it; that they can research a car before they purchase it; that Consumer Reports could tell them this car is better than that car. It’s a really empowering thing.”

The Ways to Work program offers loans of up to $8,000 at 8 percent interest. The result is more than $1 million in loans to community members in Oregon and southwest Washington since the program began in 2004; a low payment delinquency rate of less than 10 percent; and a default rate of less than 4 percent.

“Ways to Work is not a handout,” Wood said. “It’s helping Emelia make sure she can keep her job, stay off public assistance and get her daughter where she needs to go.”

“It’s been a blessing,” Moreno said. “To me, it’s been a lifesaver.”

Bill MacKenzie is a former congressional staff member, newspaper reporter and communications manager for a Hillsboro company.

Originally published in the Hillsboro Tribune,  Oct 4, 2013