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My View: Better programs needed to help the poor

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It is getting to be that time of year. Pretty soon the television stations will be airing all the different versions of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” and we’ll hear Ebenezer Scrooge’s solutions to poverty: “prisons, union workhouses or death” — which, as he puts it, is one sure way to “decrease the surplus population.”

Oregonians may be negative about government and politics; we may not know the basics of governance and public finance; and we may not believe we are making progress addressing the state’s critical issues.

But we have big hearts when it comes to the poor.

In the 2013 Oregon Values and Beliefs survey, 58 percent of Oregonians supported paying more in taxes to help individuals and families in need, and 61 percent would pay more for enhanced human service programs to prevent hunger and homelessness.

In a more recent survey, 51 percent of Oregonians said there was a time in their life when they would have considered themselves to be living in poverty. In the same survey, presented with two statements, 52 percent agreed that government aid to the poor does more good than harm because people can’t get out of poverty until their basic needs are met. Thirty-five percent felt differently, agreeing with the statement that government aid to the poor does more harm than good by making people too dependent on government.

So take that, Scrooge. Oregonians care about the poor and see a role for government (us and our tax money) in helping them. But Democrats, women and younger Oregonians (i.e., those who tend to feel most strongly on these issues) should wait before going off to their Thanksgiving dinners to celebrate these beliefs. There are some other numbers to consider.

Of 20 different public services tested in the 2013 values survey, low-income support services ranked only 18th in importance, coming behind such services as public transportation and energy-efficiency programs. In the same survey, slightly more Oregonians felt that we spend too much on government services and that taxes should be reduced than felt the opposite. Then there’s the 64 percent of Oregonians who felt that government is wasteful and inefficient with our taxes and cannot be trusted to make good decisions.

What lessons can we glean from these survey numbers and the qualitative research we’ve done on issues related to low-income services? Ebenezer Scrooge had three ghosts to learn from — Christmas Past, Present and Future. Perhaps these same three specters have something to say to us about public support for services and programs to help poor Oregonians.

The Ghost of Christmas Past would tell us not to put government at gunpoint. New programs and services should be citizen-initiated, with government in the role of a collaborator, working with the private and nonprofit sectors in innovative and responsible ways.

The Ghost of Christmas Present would tell us to be specific about the population we are trying to serve. Oregonians care most about the homeless and vulnerable groups such as low-income children and seniors.

The Ghost of Christmas Future would tell us to forget about Ebenezer Scrooge’s prisons and union workhouses, and focus instead on job training and workforce development. Oregonians are very supportive of workforce services and willing to pay more in taxes to provide them. In the 2013 survey, “enhanced job training programs for low-income people” was ranked as the highest out of five 10-year trends related to helping the poor, compared to the lowest-ranked trend, “extended jobless benefits for low-income persons.”

If the ghosts of Christmas can help Ebenezer find a place in his heart to help the poor, maybe they can also help Oregonians better sustain effective and supported programs to help the poor.

Have a great holiday season. No bah humbug.

Adam Davis, who has been conducting opinion research in Oregon for more than 35 years, is a founding principal in DHM Research, an independent, nonpartisan firm. For more information, visit www.dhmresearch.com.