What a New President Could Do for Oregon

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Dean Baker and Charles Sheketoff
The Oregonian, May 15, 2008

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With mail-in ballots in the hands of Oregon voters, communities across the state have become whistle stops in the Democratic presidential race. It's a rare opportunity for Oregonians to air their economic concerns on the national stage.

As in much of the country, the biggest problem facing working Oregonians is not a lack of jobs, but a lack of good-paying jobs. According to a recent analysis by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, just over a quarter of the jobs in Oregon qualify as "good," paying more than $17 an hour and providing health and retirement benefits.

While Oregon ranks at just about the national average in the percentage of its workers who have good jobs, that's not particularly good news: Nearly three out of every four Oregon jobs pay less than $17 an hour or don't provide health care and pension benefits. And the situation is likely to worsen soon because wages are not keeping pace with rising food and energy prices.

Of the 111,000 jobs that Oregon's economy added since the last business cycle peak in 2000, nearly one-fifth have been in the low-paying leisure and hospitality sector. These jobs are far less likely to provide health care and pension benefits than jobs elsewhere in the economy. If the state continues to see higher paying jobs replaced by low-paying jobs, then more families will find it difficult to make ends meet.

The next president must address both the immediate problems stemming from the current economic downturn and the longer-term problems associated with the loss of good jobs. Ideally, short-term measures would also help counteract the longer-term problems of low-paying jobs.

The key to counteracting a recession is to increase demand for goods and services in the short term. Two policies being considered by Congress -- extending unemployment benefits and increasing food stamps -- would ease some of the pain from the recession and help stimulate the economy. Another stimulus that could have long-term benefits would be enhancing tax credits and making public investments in improving the energy efficiency of homes and businesses. This would both reduce energy consumption and create good high-paying jobs in the hard-hit construction industry.

Long term, other measures will be necessary to improve the situation of workers in low-paying jobs. Health care reform is at the top of the list. This is necessary not just to help the tens of millions of workers who have limited or no coverage, but also to increase the pay of those who are covered. Rising health insurance costs have siphoned earnings from workers who do have coverage.

Finally, a revitalized union movement can help to improve the quality of many low-paying jobs. Over the last few decades, compensation has not kept up with increases in the amount workers produce per hour. By acting collectively, workers can get a share of the gains of their productivity growth.

The next president will be facing difficult economic times. But problems present opportunities. If the next president pushes the country in the right direction, then workers in Oregon can look forward to a more prosperous future.


Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). Charles Sheketoff is executive director of the Oregon Center for Public Policy in Silverton.