Facing up to the problems of rural Oregon

and the Rev. Kent Harrop

The unfortunate closure of the Oregon Office of Rural Policy is focusing renewed attention on the problems facing rural Oregon. Our hope is that this will lead to new initiatives that will improve life in Oregon's rural communities.

We know through our network of congregations and community ministries that we need to refocus on the problems facing rural Oregon. Even in the best economic times rural Oregon faces daunting challenges. Unemployment and poverty rates are consistently higher in most rural Oregon counties than in urban areas. Access to quality health care is more scarce in rural Oregon, especially for low-income working families, many of whom are among the 80,000 eligible individuals shut out of Oregon Health Plan-Standard coverage due to lack of funding.

In many places, living wage jobs are in low supply, but where there is growth and development (e.g. Bend-Redmond) many low- and moderate-income people can no longer afford houses in their community and must commute long distances to work.

Faced with these challenges, it is easy to play the blame game. It's easy to play the rural-urban divide card or to use the excuse of partisan gridlock. This does little to solve the critical issues we face.

So, then, what may be a better approach? While we are not experts on everything rural, we do have a few suggestions. First, it is important to eliminate the divisive rhetoric, instead emphasizing our commonalities. Shortages of affordable housing, lack of health care access, and rising unemployment are issues that affect all Oregonians, rural and urban, and we should tackle these shared problems.

We also have to recognize what is distinctive about rural Oregon, and avoid one-size-fits all policies. One big problem in rural Oregon is the lack of local government capacity to address pressing needs. This problem is compounded by the recent loss of federal forest payments.

Second, increased economic investment in people and infrastructure throughout Oregon is essential. The backlog of unfunded infrastructure projects particularly affects rural Oregon. A new document recording fee on real estate transactions could provide dedicated revenue for construction of affordable housing. And we need to ensure all Oregonians have access to affordable health care coverage. These investments are needed by all regions of Oregon, but they disproportionately benefit rural Oregon.

We need to greatly increase Oregon's Earned Income Tax Credit. When low-income working families in rural Oregon can keep more of their income, they use it to buy new tires for their car, new clothes for their kids and other purchases that boost rural economic activity.

Solutions are available for the problems of rural Oregon. We believe it is a moral imperative that we act on them. But we need to face up to the fact that solving these problems requires new public investments and therefore also requires new sources of public revenue.

This is the kind of community and human development approach that will get us through the hard times together.

David Leslie is executive director of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon. The Rev. Kent Harrop is pastor of First Baptist Church in McMinnville and president of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon.

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