Federal budget cuts fray Multnomah County’s safety net

Multnomah County, Jan. 7, 2014

SNAP1Federal budget cuts in Congress resulted in $1.2 million less per month to families getting badly needed food assistance in Multnomah County.

Multnomah County commissioners heard a troubling briefing Tuesday about how federal budget cuts in Congress are forcing county residents to choose among the necessities of life for them and their families.

“Many people in our community face a choice between food, housing and heating their homes,” said Commissioner Liesl Wendt at the start of the Jan. 7 briefing.

Commissioner Wendt and Commissioner Loretta Smith called for the briefing, which was titled “Heat or Eat,” in the wake of cuts to the federal Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program (SNAP) and ongoing uncertainty about the extension of federal unemployment benefits.

On Nov. 1, a temporary benefits increase to SNAP households ended, which resulted in about a $1.2 million cut per month to families getting badly needed food assistance in Multnomah County.

With each $1 in SNAP aid generating an estimated $1.79 in economic impact, the total monthly economic impact from the cuts in Multnomah County works out to about $2.2 million. About 20 percent of Oregonians receive food assistances from SNAP, which helps about 22 percent of people living in Multnomah County.

Additionally, nearly 50,000 Oregonians are at risk of losing their emergency unemployment compensation by mid-2014 if Congress fails to act. The U.S. Senate on Jan. 7 voted to extend the benefits, but their fate remains uncertain in the House.

The Oregon Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates the value of federal unemployment benefits last year in Multnomah County at more than $72 million.

The presenters to the county Board of Commissioners included state Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer (D-Portland); Matt Kinshella and Dierdre Melson from 211info; Dan Bates, Thorn Run Partners; Rene Dubois and Suzanne Porter, Oregon Department of Human Services; and Meghan Gabriel, SUN program coordinator at Earl Boyles Elementary School in the David Douglas School District.

Perhaps the most poignant testimony came from Melson, who works with 211info but has lost her job as a medical assistant. She spoke of her difficulties making ends meet as a working mother of four children, and said she is not alone in her battles to earn enough to survive.

“We are not lazy. We are not looking for a handout,’’ she told the board. “I actually make more than the federal wage but I am struggling.”

Commissioners Smith and Wendt said they called for the hearing because the county — as the provider of many safety-net services — needs to understand how all the cuts will hurt the people it serves.

“These cuts to budgets make a long, hard road to economic stability harder for them,’’ Commissioner Smith said. “This will give us an opportunity to prioritize what’s important for us.”