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One Calamity Away 

The United Way of Deschutes County says nearly half of Central Oregon households can't afford basic necessities. Is the recession really over for working families?

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Tracy Stephenson was born and raised in Bend and along with her husband, is now raising two children. She's lived through the ups and downs in the economy and watched Bend go from a sleepy town where affordable housing was common, to the current state, where she and her family get by, but say they're an illness or injury away from catastrophe.

"It would be bad," Stevenson told the Source Weekly. "Depending of the situation it could be us going further into credit card debt or having to borrow from family."

Many people see Bend as a high-end oasis, with McMansions dotting the west hills overlooking the beautiful Central Oregon landscape. And while some can afford million-dollar homes, many more can't afford some of life's basic necessities.

According to a report released from the United Way of Deschutes County, nearly 39 percent of Central Oregon households—and 37 percent in Deschutes County—don't have the income to cover a monthly budget that includes housing, food, child care, healthcare, transportation and a cell phone.

New data released by the United Way of the Pacific Northwest and the United Way ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) Project shows that in Central Oregon, nearly 35,000 households live only one unexpected expense away from financial crisis. According to the United Way of Deschutes County, nearly 11,000 households now live below the federal poverty level, with 35,000 of the 88,000 households in Central Oregon considered ALICE households.

"The ALICE report is so important because it shows us what's really going on locally, here in Central Oregon," Diana Fischetti, director of development and marketing at United Way of Deschutes County, said in a press release. "National data just doesn't show the extent of the financial struggle faced by so many in our community. ALICE households are a population that many of us are part of—and if not us—then our friends, neighbors, families, coworkers, families of our children's friends, and those we encounter in our daily activities. These people who are working hard, sometimes more than one job, but often still cannot make ends meet and are living on the edge," Fischetti said.

Looking back on the way things used to be, Stevenson says, "It's just as simple as you could actually afford to live here."

Compared to today, "everything was so different. There wasn't that 'keeping up with the Joneses' mentality. It wasn't all about the money or how much money you made. Now it's just hard for most families to even put a roof over their heads because they can't afford or even find a place."

In a recent article in The New York Times about affordable housing lotteries in San Francisco, readers asked why people didn't simply move away from areas they couldn't afford, instead of living in cramped apartments or with multiple family members. Emily Badger reported, "People who struggle financially often have valuable social networks—family to help with child care or acquaintances who know of jobs."

Stephenson can understand that line of thinking. "We did consider moving to Redmond, but at the time the rent prices were right behind Bend's," Stephenson said. "We never wanted to ever leave here. This has been my home my whole life, this is where I wanted to raise my family—money or no money. I was here first, damn it."

Since the end of the Great Recession in 2010, there have been improvements in employment and incomes, but according to the United Way, economic recovery in Central Oregon hasn't been even. In 2016, Bend's per capita income was $30,946, according to bestplaces.net. That figure is calculated by dividing the area's total income by its total population. In March 2018, the median home cost was $424,000 according to the Beacon Report. The average rent as of April 2018, was $1,750, according to Zillow.com.

ALICE Project Director Stephanie Hoopes said in the press release that despite the seemingly positive economic signs, the data shows financial hardship is still a widespread problem.

"This research dispels long-standing myths about financial instability by showing that ALICE families exist in every community and among all ages, races and ethnicities," Hoopes said in the release.

ALICE households in Central Oregon

  • 49 percent of Jefferson County
  • 46 percent of Crook County
  • 37 percent of Deschutes County

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