NOW‘s broadcast Life On the Edge tells the stories of families living in Oregon, a state found by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to have a high rate of “food insecurity” and hunger.
TOM CASCIATO: Cassandra Garrison considers herself a warrior in an army fighting poverty. She fights her battles in what might seem an unlikely locale. This is Portland, Oregon, a city known — quite rightly — for its environmental consciousness, its outdoor lifestyle, and increasingly, its fine restaurants. It's never far from the top of the list of America's most livable cities, in one of its most livable states. But it's a state with a problem.
CASSANDRA GARRISON: In my neighborhood my school for my child school – the middle school – over 80 percent of the families get free and reduced lunches. And without the free breakfast and the free lunch most of those kids wouldn't even have food in their stomachs for the majority of the day.
CASCIATO: Oregonians were shocked three years ago when the U.S. Department of Agriculture ranked the state first in the nation in incidents of outright hunger, as well as sixth for what it calls "food insecurity."
AMELIA HARD: We are not talking about babies with distended bellies, what we are talking about is what is now called food insecurity which essentially means that you don't know from meal to meal whether you have the resources to acquire food for yourself and your family.
CASCIATO: Last year, about one out of every six people in Oregon and neighboring Clark County, Washington received emergency food assistance – that's over 650,000 individuals. And these weren't all people with no resources. In fact, 43% of the households receiving assistance had at least one adult working.
VAL: I think I probably spend twenty dollars a month at the grocery store. Other than that it's here. We started coming here regularly. One of the reasons why is because I could come on the weekend and I didn't have to tell my boss you know I can't come today because I'm going to a food bank because I don't earn enough money as a single parent with three children.
HARD: Low-income people in the state of Oregon on an average pay 60% of their income for housing. It can go as high as 70 to 75%. So, you know, you just look at that and realize that 25 to 30 to 35% has to cover transportation, clothing, medical expenses, and then food.
GARRISON: And since there's no bill collector for food often what we see is families will cut back on their food expenses to be able to pay the other expenses like rent and electric.
CASCIATO: Cassandra Garrison knows firsthand what it's like to be poor. It was when she was almost on the street that she began to learn the lessons that would inspire her future work.
GARRISON: I was a welfare mother. There was a point in time when I picked up cans, I begged on the corner, I did everything except sleep with my landlord to stay housed. Stability is everything for families. If you cannot keep families stable they will just disintegrate.
CASCIATO: While on public assistance, Garrison pursued an education, eventually earning a master's degree in Public Administration. This led to a full time job as an advocate for the nonprofit Oregon Food Bank. Now she uses her experience and knowledge to help others navigate the system that got her out of poverty. She regularly visits a strip of motels on Portland's 82nd Avenue, often the last place hungry people live on the way to homelessness. Right across the street is a branch of the state Adult and Family Services office.
GARRISON: This is where a mother and a family, someone out of work, single adult could come and get food stamps or information on job resources and referral.
CASCIATO: Is it safe to say that if you don't get what you need over here you might end up over there?
GARRISON: Um, you could get what you need from there and still end up over there.
CASCIATO: As we stood on the corner, Garrison was approached by a recently laid-off steelworker. He had just emerged from the Adult and Family Services office.
PAT MARTINEZ: They sent us a letter in the mail saying our food stamps was going to expire in two weeks, to call this number. So I called him and I said, hey you know I haven't found a good enough job yet, can we have some stamps some more? Oh you have to come back in and fill out this and this. For a whole month we had nothing. This is going on the second month. We don't have no food in the fridge at home, nothing. Nothing. I am not getting nothing.
GARRISON: Are you getting WIC?
CASCIATO: She immediately set about showing him how to cut through the red tape.
GARRISON: I want you to call. These people can tell you how to get food stamps and get the Oregon Health Plan.
KIM THOMAS: We hired her on at Oregon Food Bank as essentially an outreach worker, an advocacy outreach worker. Somebody that would go out onto the street and actually talk to poor people. What an amazing thing.
MARTINEZ: You know, we're dying! We're a family, you know? I'm healthy, I'll take a job in a heartbeat. But, if I work for 10 or 11 bucks an hour and I have four kids, I'm not going to make it.
GARRISON: Right, right.
MARTINEZ: I need a skilled job. I need something that will actually keep me in you know, especially when they say you got to have insurance on your vehicles. You got to have this, you got to have that.
GARRISON: You're on unemployment now?
MARTINEZ: Right, I get $93 a week.
THOMAS: She was fearless. Going into the offices, calling to see if she could get an application and just discovering, red tape galore.
MARTINEZ: I had all this information for the caseworker, right? She said bring me this information I give you your stamps. I said, ok, so I show up there I give her the information and she's not at work.
GARRISON: OK, but you're going to go in and did you ask for the branch manager?
GARRISON: OK, you want to go into this branch and you want to see the branch manager.
CASCIATO: The recent recession hit Oregon hard. Its 8% unemployment rate is the nation's highest. But the story here isn't simply about people not having jobs. Remember, the state got its #1 hunger ranking in 1999, during the economic boom.
THOMAS: I think those that worked on poverty issues and hunger issues definitely knew during the course of the 90's that there were some people that weren't benefiting from the great gains that were happening to others. Because we saw food bank numbers continue to go up particularly since welfare reform in 1996.
CASCIATO: It was in 1996 when President Bill Clinton teamed with the Republican-controlled Congress to pass the welfare-reform bill known as the "Personal Responsibility Act."
PRESIDENT CLINTON (FROM TAPE): From now on, our nation's answer to this great social challenge will no longer be a never-ending cycle of welfare, it will be the dignity, the power and the ethic of work.
CASCIATO: That same year, Oregon passed similar state legislation.
THOMAS: The goal was to get people to work as quickly as possible and off the state coffers. The economy was good enough that that actually happened. A mixture of the public agencies really pushing people off the programs and the economy being good enough with a lot of low wage jobs that people did move off. And Oregon had probably one of the highest caseload reductions off its public assistance programs of any state, as well, which the state took as a great success. Nobody asked the question of what happened to these people? They're working but are they out of poverty?
CASCIATO: In the five years following state and federal welfare reform, welfare cases in Oregon went down by about 50% but during that same period the demand for emergency food went up 50%.
THOMAS: And in '96, I think the message the way that law was titled, "personal responsibility act" communicated to people that you didn't deserve help from the system. You really had to get out there and work and take care of it yourself. So people did that and even though they may have been in low wage jobs and still qualified for something like the federal food stamp program they didn't go in and get it. Or they weren't told about it. And so they were working and poor, but not getting the benefits they were still eligible for. So our goal in advocacy has been the state is a partner in this and the federal government is and we need people to know about all the benefits when they are in trouble and need help.
GARRISON: These are the rules for the jobs program. You have problems getting anything associated with this then you're gonna be calling me.
THOMAS: We have made progress on food stamp outreach. We got the state to commit to start to remove barriers to get people on food stamps. We've gone up 41% in two years. That all started with Cassandra.
GARRISON: These people right here are the supervisors of those people back here.
MARTINEZ: And tell ‘em what?
GARRISON: And you're going to tell them you're having problems getting your food stamps, that you have no food in your house.
GARRISON: And that you met Cassandra in the lobby of the AFS office this morning and she was suggesting that you call and talk to them about getting your food stamps taken care of and to get that employment-related daycare in line for your girlfriend to be able to go out and look for work.
GARRISON: And then you just wanna tell them the entire saga of what you've been dealing with.
MARTINEZ: Yeah, what we've been through. Yeah, okay.
CASCIATO: There's perhaps no greater testament to the dimensions of the state's hunger problem than the dimensions of the Oregon Food Bank's recently built warehouse: 94,000 square feet, packed almost to the ceiling with box upon box of food. It's donated by government and corporate sources, as well as a few surprising local ones.
LISA WIEBE: We're getting fish that was thrown away up in Alaska coming in. And then we're getting maybe deer and bear that are animals that Fish and Wildlife in Oregon. Those animals are being destroyed because maybe they are causing harm to farmers' crops. And then they are being shipped to us, repackaged.
CASCIATO: The Food Bank is a nonprofit agency that supplies a web of almost 800 emergency food distribution centers. It serves pantries, churches and other charitable groups throughout the region. What makes the system typical of Oregon is its emphasis on recycling, preserving the environment, and preventing waste, even as it serves hungry people. An example can be seen in the area where prisoners on limited release from a local penitentiary sort through tons of seemingly useless goods.
WIEBE: That is what we would call salvage. It might be that a case has been dropped and so there is damaged cans. And it's no longer sellable, but it's edible. And then if it's not edible it gets moved into a tote for a pig farmer who then takes it, he'll cook it down, feed his pigs, recycle all the tin and it's just a complete operation. But nothing goes to waste. Isn't that wonderful?
CASCIATO: It sounds like a well-run business.
WIEBE: Well if you figure 46 million pounds of food. 25 million going through this warehouse last year – yeah. For a dollar let's say that someone donates to us, we move 10 dollars worth of food.
CASCIATO: Supplies from the Food Bank are eventually packed into emergency food boxes, providing enough to feed a family of three for up to five days. But no matter how much food you see in the warehouse, no matter how efficient the organization, the problem is much too big to be solved by charity alone, according the Food Bank's policy director, Kim Thomas.
THOMAS: You do see the growth of this system. It's very effective, it's very efficient, policymakers like it because we run like a business. It's an easy out for people, well we have this system what more do you need? You're talking about one box of food lasts maybe three to five days. And at most people probably can access that once a month. We just don't have the resources to go beyond that. Nor do I think we want to keep making it more often. We really want the public safety net to work and good family wage jobs to come into communities so people can go to the grocery store and purchase their own food. And that's why we work so hard here on the root causes, our advocacy work. Probably 98% of our time is not spent on getting resources into the food bank system. It's spent on all those public policy issues. I know if we hadn't been doing that, I couldn't stay here and do this job.
GARRISON: Tomorrow you're going to call me after you've made all these phone calls that I gave you, you're going to talk to Legal Aid, leave messages for those two attorneys, and let me know what's going on.
MARTINEZ: OK, I will.
CASCIATO: The Food Bank's advocates routinely lobby policymakers on hunger-related issues like poverty, housing and childcare costs and tax policies. In the best of times, they fight to increase funding for social services. This year, they are just trying to hang on to what they've got. Because Oregon is facing not only the recession – it's in the middle of a fiscal crisis — there's an approximately 840-million dollar shortfall in the state-operating budget.
THOMAS: Last July our state legislature had planned this two-year budget with a very conservative estimate about what kind of money would come in from income, how caseloads would go from certain programs. And then the recession hit. All the sudden a big chunk of money wasn't coming in through income taxes and other various forms and caseloads were rising. More people lost their jobs so they were coming to get cash assistance from the state, food stamps. What are we going to do about that?
CASCIATO: Here's the problem as the Food Bank sees it: In these tight times social services are more necessary than ever. Things like food stamp outreach, job training and daycare for students. But because of the budget shortfall, they are on the chopping block. Under the state constitution, Oregon must have a balanced budget. Any thought of raising income taxes to balance it is practically out of the question. Local talk show-radio hosts help see to that.
LARS LARSON (FROM RADIO): No idea when it will be over, but it is fair to say that no man or woman's life, liberty or property is safe while the legislature is in session. We're going to get to your phone calls in just a moment, we've got a lot going on.
HARD: These guys have their following, people who listen to them you know day after day after day after day and if they say the legislature is considering, or the governor has proposed raising taxes, call your legislator and they'll give them the phone number and they do in droves.
CASCIATO: One of the radio shows' prime targets is Governor John Kitzhaber.
LARSON (FROM RADIO): And we've also issued a personal invitation to King John to come on down and tell us why in the world he wants to raise our taxes. You know that yesterday he held a news conference and said now we're another $100 million in the hole, so we've got to raise taxes even more, cigarette taxes, not 30 cents a pack, wants to push it to 50 cents a pack.
HARD: Those of us who do in fact feel strongly on the other side unless we just wake up in the morning and say, by golly I am going to email my legislators about this. I'm gonna phone ‘em. You know but you have to sort of have the impetus yourself. There is nobody whipping you up to do it.
THOMAS: We've also had wages stagnate. So probably the most opposition I get when I say we need more revenue in the state or more taxes to fund programs isn't from the rich people up in the west hills of Portland. They are sort of like, well yeah, go ahead. I'll pay a little more taxes to have a better school system and provide services to vulnerable people. Where I get the opposition when I talk about it is middle and lower income people, who've really not seen their wages increase. Do feel a disproportionate tax burden because we don't have an effective, progressive tax system here and feel like they can't take anymore tax increases. And that's where the anti-tax activists have really capitalized — on that group.
CASCIATO: In February, the State Legislature called a special session to address the budget emergency. Cassandra Garrison wanted to be sure the lawmakers saw in person the people who would be affected by cuts in social services. So she organized a group to join a bus trip to the capital, Salem. Among those with her was a recently laid-off social worker, Cathy Mounts.
CASCIATO: What kind of services were you providing to people?
CATHY MOUNTS: I helped them with a variety of things. Really it was keeping them from falling through the cracks. And helping them to access the system.
CASCIATO: So you were helping people from falling through the cracks. And then you fell through the cracks.
MOUNTS: I did.
CASCIATO: How are you feeding yourself, how are you feeding your children?
MOUNTS: I have a wonderful, supportive network of friends and I know that I am very fortunate. I am grateful that I have people that are willing to give me ten bucks or willing to bring over some dinner.
CASCIATO: A lot of people say that's exactly the way things should work. If someone's in trouble their friends should step in, their family should step in, their community should step in, their church, but there shouldn't be public assistance, it shouldn't be coming out of taxpayers.
MOUNTS: It would be wonderful if people had the supportive network of friends and family that – so they wouldn't have to rely on state agencies. However that is not always possible. The reason I was laid off was because we lost funding. And I know that non-profits will continue to lose funding because it's becoming less important to have those social services agencies funded. As that happens the people who used to help the poor will now be the poor. It will be an entire different population of people that will be asking for services, except they're not going to be there any more. There won't be the services.
RADIO VOICE: To tax or not to tax. Broadcasting live from the state capital in Salem, home to this year's special legislative session, it's the Northwest's number one, number one local talk show host...
LARS LARSON: Good afternoon. Seven minutes after twelve noon, and we are live in Salem for First Amendment Friday. It's a very special First Amendment Friday. What's your name, young lady?
GARRISON: My name's Cassandra Garrison, I'm a full-time employee of the Oregon Food Bank and also the program director for the Poverty Action Team.
LARSON: Why should it be the job of government to end poverty when you folks at the Food Bank do such a good job?
GARRISON: Because the jobs that welfare mothers are getting are $7 an hour jobs. And if you do the math, Lars, $7 an hour does not equate to $800 a month and by the time you pay for child care and food and transportation and electric and pay for rent there's no money left.
LARSON: So it's the job of government to end poverty, not the job of business to create jobs, schools to educate.
GARRISON: I would love to see that but that's not what happens. What happened to Fujitsu, what's happening to Nike —
LARSON: Here is one of the concerns I have, private business, when you talk about Fujitsu and Nike and all those companies I think that's a healthy thing for companies to do. Not because it's easy —
GARRISON: To lay off employees and move out of state?
LARSON: No but here's what happens. If a company doesn't do that, do you know what happens to the company? It goes out of business and then everybody is out of a job. If it stays healthy in it manages to continue jobs and in the future grow more. See, that is what I'd like government to do, is when necessary thin down and make sure you're doing just the job you're supposed to do.
GARRISON: But Lars if you look at the graph as we moved women and families off of public assistance…
GARRISON: We moved them out into low wage pink-collar jobs. They were the last hired, they are the first fired. They have the least amount of education…
LARSON: I understand –
GARRISON: They had the least amount of training. Our typical welfare programs which in this state which is a work first state we want women to move off of public assistance and into low-wage jobs and they cannot support their families. Also what's happened is with the food bank our numbers have doubled so all we did was move people off of food stamps onto food banks rolls.
CASCIATO: I'm reminded today that President Clinton said back in 1996 we're gonna end welfare as we know it.
GARRISON: Well, President Clinton may have vowed to end welfare as we know it but he has created poverty as I see it everyday. Everyday I see the effects of the changes in those policies in 1996 and now because we've had a national crisis because the economy in Oregon is failing there are no safety nets for these families and when they try to go back in and get public benefits to keep them and their families afloat. There is nothing there for them and they are ending up homeless.
STATE REPRESENTATIVE: Colleagues, we all know why we are here today.
CASCIATO: Republicans control the legislature. They want to balance the budget with spending cuts and one-time revenue sources like tobacco settlement money. Many Democrats support Governor John Kitzhaber's plans to raise the cigarette and alcohol tax. Both parties have proposed borrowing from school funds to help balance the budget. People in trouble, meanwhile, keep calling Cassandra Garrison.
GARRISON: Have you talked to Care/Share about getting another food box?
STATE REPRESENTATIVE: It's irresponsible not to make some reductions in a billion-dollar shortfall to our budget.
GARRISON: You gotta go at it like this: Cassandra suggested that I call to see if you knew of any place that may help with my electric bill.
STATE REPRESENTATIVE: Is it perfect? Nooooo. How could a budget that reduced essential services be perfect?
GARRISON: The thing is we've got to get you a phone because you aren't going to be able to get a job if you don't have a telephone.
STATE REPRESENTATIVE: This is what we were elected for, folks. This is who we should be. We should be problem solvers. Not ideologues.
GARRISON: You just want to say that you'd like to leave a message for Gov. Kitzhaber.
STATE REPRESENTATIVE: But unless we move this process forward, folks, we are wasting taxpayer money and not living up to our obligations as statesmen and stateswomen.
CASCIATO: The special session ended in a deadlock. Still on the table are proposed cuts of 67% in student day care, 57% in emergency cash assistance and 30% in food stamp outreach.
GARRISON: My basic problem with what is happening in Salem and why I struggle so hard to get the voices of low income families in the legislator's sight is because we have to get the debate off of a number and start looking of the faces of these women that I see everyday and the children that I see every day because we cannot allow a budget figure to determine the need. We have a humongous need. More need than we have money.
CASCIATO: It's ironic that she's lobbying to protect services in a bureaucracy she believes to be entrenched in red tape. But Garrison saw the system work for her – and she is pressing hard to make it work for others, like one of her proteges, De Ette Peck.
DE ETTE PECK: I was a server — a food server and a cocktail server, and a bartender. You make minimum wage plus tips. Some nights you make really good money and other nights you're walking home with your paycheck. That doesn't even pay rent let alone pay all the other bills that come with it.
CASCIATO: Peck who is separated from her husband lives with her two daughters. When she lost her job last year she faced a financial crisis.
PECK: I didn't have staples, we didn't have normal milk, cheese, flour. So I had to hit a couple food pantries just to help get those. I've had to tell them that they could only have one helping of cereal because I wasn't sure if we were going to have enough to last the whole week. I have to go to goodwill and other clothing outlets to try to clothe my daughters. I volunteered at the life center a couple hours to get some clothes from them too because I can't afford to keep them clothed. They grow so fast.
CASCIATO: Peck wanted to study nursing, because she thought it would pay a living wage. But it was impossible to go to school, take care of her kids and look for work at the same time.
PECK: I was really frustrated because I went to apply for unemployment and they told me they couldn't give it to me because I wouldn't quit school. I have to be available for any shifts and all shifts. And yet I am trying to better myself. Because the only thing I am capable of doing is serving food.
CASCIATO: Garrison helped her obtain food stamps, subsidized housing, and insurance for her daughters through the Oregon Health Plan, freeing her to go to school.
PECK: Cassandra Garrison has showed me that AFS is not a lifestyle, it's a stepping stone to getting my degree. I'm going to get a Masters in nursing, that's what I want. Knowing that I am going to have a brand new car payment and brand new house payment because that what my degree means to me.
THOMAS: We often fear that for every one that gets to us there are hundreds out there. That if they get to the front door, they are walking away being told there is nothing available and they accept that because they think that's what it is.
MARTINEZ: You come down to my house on 58th and open up the refrigerator and you know, these kids are eating peanut butter right now and those little Top Ramen noodles. That's what we've been eating the last four days, Top Ramen noodles. It's just ridiculous. I never lived like this in my life. You know, I always lived decent, you know.
THOMAS: And they're still hungry and they are probably gonna be homeless because they are trying to piece together that rent payment.
MARTINEZ: And I don't want to be out of the streets here soon, you know, we have very little family here in Oregon. So it's like we could be out of the streets here if I don't get a job soon.
THOMAS: And that's what we've seen repeatedly and I think is one of the most scary things. Because then you have a family in a car on 82nd street in Portland. And how has that benefited the state? The amount of help — assuming that they get to help — that it's now going to take to dig that family out of their car off the street is probably a lot more expensive than if we would have paid their rent, when they came in and originally asked for help.
HARD: This is the French Bistro comfort food meal…and it's a delicious one.
CASCIATO: Amelia Hard once owned Portland's finest Italian restaurant – and she still finds time to teach gourmet-cooking classes. But 10 years ago, she left the restaurant business to devote her time to helping fight hunger.
With no end to the problem in sight, and with the budget debate at an impasse, she teams with other local chefs to teach cooking classes to people on public assistance, advising them both on nutrition and stretching their scant food budget.
LISA SCHROEDER: Beans, rice, pasta. That should be the main part of your diet and so sometimes you don't have to have a meat at your meal. You can have beans and rice, you can have beans and pasta, and you will get a complete meal for your family.
HARD: This is a heavy knife. When someone is laid off or when their minimum wage job does not make ends meet. The very first place they feel it is in their food budget. There are several reasons. One is that they've been depending on foods that are already prepared for them and are consequently much more expensive then raw foods would be. Many of them don't even go that far. They go out and eat fast food. So they're used to spending a disproportionate amount of their budget.
SCHROEDER: OK, that's the beautiful thing about greens. They're healthy and they're inexpensive. We try to teach them how to use their food dollars wisely. And how to take products from the Oregon Food Bank and make yummy meals with them. Ok, so we've got a pound of beans, 79 cents. Two bunches of collard greens for a dollar, so we'll say 50 cents. Then we've got our onion and our carrot and our garlic, let's say that all costs a dollar. So now we're at two dollars and 30 cents. A pound of pasta is 99 cents, so we're now at 3.30 and let's all push it to four dollars maximum, four dollars total and we have enough food to feed at least –at the very least — four people big bowls of food.
THOMAS: I think that just saying we want family wage jobs is a tall order. I mean, we are a capitalist country. So if you're not gonna get that tomorrow, what are you going to do with people who can't make it?
MARTINEZ: If it wasn't for public assistance a lot of people would be really starving right now, really hurting. Portland would be in sad shape if they didn't have help for these people.
CASCIATO: But you'd rather have a job?
MARTINEZ: I'd rather have a job in a heartbeat. I'd rather be holding that camera for you than holding this notebook, you know, definitely.
PECK: I don't want to see people on the corners, you know, "will work for food." I want people to have food and not have to worry when their next meal is going to be and if they're going to be warm this winter because they're not sure if they're gonna have a roof over their head.
CASCIATO: Do you think you're going to see that anytime soon?
PECK: Honestly? No. But, hopefully, yes.