Food Insecurity in Oregon finally to pre-Recession levels, but still too high

by Matt Newell-Ching

USDA’s annual report on food insecurity is one of the most important snapshots of how we’re doing as a nation. Unlike the Federal Poverty Level (which measures gross income but doesn’t take into account the cost of living) or the GDP (which measures all income but doesn’t consider income inequality), the food insecurity measure asks a series of straightforward questions about whether a person or a family has trouble affording food.

So it’s significant that in its latest report issued in September, Oregon’s rate of food insecurity dropped significantly over the last three years. Yet our economy is still leaving too many families behind, and the impact is uneven due to historical injustices. Here are our five big takeaways from the report:

    1. USDA estimates Oregon had the sharpest drop of food insecurity of any state
      Oregon’s food insecurity rate dropped from 16% (2013-2015) to 11% (2016-2018). We can’t definitively say it’s the largest drop of any state (because of confidence intervals), but at five percentage points, it was the largest decrease reported of any state. For our state which twenty years ago had the worst hunger rate in the nation, it’s welcome news.
    2. And yet, one in nine Oregon families still struggle to afford food
      Progress is good. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. One in nine families still struggles to afford food, and this puts in line with the national average, which isn’t great. This means that more than 480,000 Oregonians struggle to afford food, the equivalent of the combined population of Eugene, Gresham, Bend, and Medford.
    3. The Drop in Food Insecurity Coincided with Oregon’s Minimum Wage Increase
      Oregon passed a landmark minimum wage law in 2016, creating a three-tiered rate that requires employers to provide increases annually from 2016 to 2022. It’s notable that the new USDA report measures food insecurity from 2016-2018 versus the prior report (2013-2015). In other words, this is the first time the report has reflected minimum wage increases in each year. Several other states saw significant drops in food insecurity which also enacted minimum wage increases over this period, such as Nebraska, Colorado, and New York. With the usual disclaimers about correlation not equalling causation, it’s an encouraging sign and warrants further research. Hunger-Free Oregon supported the 2016 minimum wage increase because when families earn enough to purchase basics like food, everyone is better off.
    4. Trump’s Proposed Rules Would Undercut this Progress
      Oregon has worked hard over the last two decades to connect more eligible families to the food assistance through the SNAP program. However, the Trump Administration has now proposed four rule changes that would make hunger worse in Oregon. Together, these rules would impose harsh time limits, create a chilling effect among documented immigrants, take away food assistance from seniors facing moderate medical costs, harm renters in areas with high housing costs, make it harder for people who face high heating bills to get assistance, and make it harder for kids in school to be approved for school meals. We must continue to call out these proposals for what they are: harmful, racist, and bad policy.
    5. Racial disparities due to historical injustices still persist
      The report also reveals that disparities in hunger between households headed by people of color and white households are still persistent. Food insecurity among African American and Native American households are more than double the rate of white households in Oregon, due to the legacy of exclusions in home ownership and land displacement. Latinx families also face higher rates of hunger, many affected by biased immigration policies. The percentage of households with food insecure children was higher for female-headed households (15.9 percent), who face pay inequities and gender bias.