You’d be forgiven for being skeptical when we claim that Portland is experiencing a wealth boom, because most people aren’t benefiting from it. In fact, according to a December 2017 survey, 84 percent of Portland area residents said that quality of life is either staying the same or getting worse. Only 9 percent felt it was getting better.
The latest budget proposed by Mayor Wheeler and unanimously approved by the city council only reinforces the trend toward austerity. The Parks department will be cutting customer service staff, reducing maintenance, and shutting down community splash pad fountains for one additional month each year going forward. In a further squeeze to working class households, the Portland Water Bureau and Bureau of Environmental Services will be passing on the cost of repairs and new facilities through rate increases of about 5 percent. And despite the repeated protests of over one hundred members of the public, the city is eliminating its funding for YouthPass, a critical program which allows 13,000 children free access to TriMet transportation. For many low income students, YouthPass is their only safe and reliable way of attending school.
These budget cuts will have a disproportionate impact on women and families. Women often provide the unpaid labor that supports our economy. Those responsible for domestic labor rely more on schools, community centers, and parks and will experience a larger impact from cuts to these critical services.
But cuts to existing programs are only the tip of the iceberg of unmet needs in our community. Read on for ideas about what Portland could look like if we took real steps to put human needs before private wealth.
What if every single 3, 4, and 5-year-old was guaranteed high-quality care and education every day, regardless of their family’s ability to pay? Would it transform your life, or that of someone you know? This is no fantasy — from Seattle to Denver to New York City, universal preschool (pre-k) programs have been successfully implemented nationwide.
The strongest argument for universal pre-k is a matter of justice: everyone has a right to an equal opportunity to flourish as a human being. Shamefully, our society has never even come close to respecting that right. To this day, hugely divergent outcomes in income and health can be predicted from birth based on nothing but a child’s race, the income of their parents, their zip code, or any number of other characteristics outside of their control. By providing all young children with comparable care and education, we can work to close those gaps.
Those who find such moral arguments unconvincing would do well to heed the economic arguments. A mountain of research shows that every dollar invested in early childhood education produces returns of 7-10% annually as the beneficiaries grow up to become healthier, more skilled contributors to the economy and tax base. As the work of University of Chicago economist and Nobel Laureate James Heckman has shown, the economic returns rise even higher to 13% for programs that begin at birth. The research is clear: investing in the care and education of children pays greater dividends than nearly any possible project, public or private. We can pay to develop the next generation and all end up richer as a result.
Anyone who has lived in Portland for more than a few years has felt the impact of soaring housing costs personally. According to one recent study, the average rent for a two bedroom apartment has now risen to a level ($1,208 per month) that requires a $48,000 salary to be sustainable. At minimum wage, that’s the equivalent of 2.5 full-time jobs. Research from MIT backs up this calculation: the living wage for an adult supporting two children in Multnomah County is more than triple the minimum wage. Tragically, while some are merely squeezed by rising rents, others are pushed out of housing entirely. The dire extent of houselessness in Portland is obvious to all — a majority of respondents to one survey rated the problem a critical 9 or 10 on a 10 point scale of concern.
The solution is simple: directly fund the acquisition and development of housing units for those most in need. In 2016, Portland voters overwhelmingly approved a $258 million housing bond to do just that. While a significant step in the right direction, this amount is still small in comparison to what’s possible: if implemented across the Metro area, our income tax proposal would raise nearly that amount every single year. Moreover, while some low-income households are impacted by the property taxes used to repay municipal bonds, our income tax would be paid by only the wealthy.