When the media reports about the challenges with the economy, it usually just reports on the numbers: the unemployment rate, the housing rates, the median salary.

Those numbers tell you something about our economy, but they don't tell you much about our community, and what we need to get families the good jobs they need to get their lives squarely on track.

People need an opportunity to get good middle class jobs - and our focus should be on them and their quality of life, not just the numbers behind them.

Most people join or stay in the middle class because they either get a college degree, start a small business or join a union. Our problem is those paths to the middle class are becoming less and less available to average Oregonians.

The cost of higher education - both two-year and four-year colleges - is increasingly out of reach for many young people.

Students that make the college plunge become so burdened with loans that starting a family, buying a house and beginning their life becomes a two-decade financial undertaking, and that's if there's a job waiting after they get their diploma.

Small businesses face a similar uphill climb - small business owners report that the financial crisis of the last five years makes access to affordable small business capital tough to come by. Red tape by overlapping districts and jurisdictions means months of work just to open the doors.

Luckily, these are problems that the state can actually do something about.

On higher education, we must re-invest.

Oregon is one of five states that spends more money on its prisons than it does on higher education. Our priorities are clearly out of whack. Investment in schools would mean a more affordable degree and more access to more people in more parts of the state - especially improved access at Portland Community College for western Washington County.

On small businesses, we need to create incentives for local banks to give affordable loans to small businesses. And we need to coordinate and streamline permitting between local, county and state processes.

That gets us started. But then, for our community to thrive economically, we need to get creative. And for creativity, I believe we need to re-invest in our agricultural past to create a prosperous future.

We still have the best farmland in the country, maybe the world, and if we invest in our farms, we can start to re-create a local food economy. If Yamhill County can be wine country, Washington County should be able to become food country.

We've begun already to build the infrastructure - farmers' markets support local food farms already, and many market booths have already turned into booming small businesses.

This can be our future, but it will take coordination - statewide incentives, local farmland preservation, and regional coordination - to promote and create the opportunities local farmers need.

We can rebuild our local economy and we can create good middle class jobs. We can have a community where everyone has an opportunity for the basics we deserve: a roof over our head, food on our table and health care for ourselves and our kids.

Ben Unger is a Democratic candidate for House District 29, which includes west Hillsboro, Cornelius and Forest Grove. You can contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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