My address to state legislators

February 21, 2015 Howard Kenyon No comments exist


This coming week, I have three minutes to address a breakfast gathering of Oregon state legislators. Here is what I plan to say:
Let me tell you about a friend whom I will call “Kyle”. As a name, “Kyle” is currently linked in popular imaginations with heroism and my friend is a hero of the first magnitude.
He once told me he would do “whatever it takes” to keep his three preschool-aged kids from living on the street. Doing “whatever it takes” has included selling his own blood and daily walking seven hilly, country miles to a bus stop in search of work, all with a shattered ankle.
Last summer, after four years of fruitless job searching in the recession, he finally landed a minimum-wage position. Within two months he was promoted to manager – at less than $14 an hour. He found additional work on the graveyard shift elsewhere.
Sixty hours a week at such low pay doesn’t bring home enough to provide for his kids and his wife, she who is diagnosed with a debilitating and incurable illness. To hold down his jobs, they now live in the city where rent has just gone up another hundred bucks to $1,400 a month, plus all utilities. Obviously his paychecks don’t go anywhere near far enough to cover food, diapers or bus tickets. In effect, our food pantry subsidizes the comfortable lifestyle of his boss/shop owner.
Within a month of landing that job, Kyle was earning too much for our social safety net and he lost his TANF, SNAP, WIC, and Medicaid benefits, the stuff popularly known as “welfare”. This loss is what some of us on the Oregon Hunger Task Force call “the Cliff”, that sudden and dramatic disappearance of assistance that leaves the newly hired and barely paid working poor in a precarious state.
Kyle, whose company had hired him without sick time for the first twelve months – and no benefits – discovered the loss of health coverage when his toddler son was hospitalized with a serious asthmatic condition. The discovery, by the hospital, meant still-too-sick Junior was released and sent home prematurely.
Climbing out of poverty is a complicated mission for 21st Century Americans barely keeping body and soul together. While Kyle’s set of circumstances is unique, complicated factors are the norm for the thousands of stories that every year walk through the doors of our emergency food program at the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon.
All I ask for Kyle and so many others like him is that we as an advanced society provide:
1.      A truly secure social safety net
2.      A gradual slope instead of a cliff in assistance drop-off as workforce income is increased
3.      Sturdy, manageable steps for all with “shattered ankles” to climb up and out of their impossible situations 
As a person of faith with a Ph.D, I find the current path out of poverty mind-boggling. In our blessed nation, the road to family economic stability need not be rocket science.

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