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Wonks and Storytellers in Oregon

Last Friday I trekked down to Salem for a hearing on Oregon Senate bill 1044, which would expand Oregon's Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Like 23 other states, Oregon has a state EITC that complements the federal credit. 

Here's how Oregon's EITC works: Oregon matches 6 percent of the federal EITC. So, for example, if your family is eligible for a $1,000 federal credit, Oregon kicks in an extra $60. It's particularly important because in Oregon, the lowest-income fifth of families pays a higher share of income to state and local taxes than the richest fifth. The bill would help more than 200,000 people in Oregon close the gap between impossible choices among food, medicine, utilities, and rent.

Confession: I thought spending a Friday afternoon at a hearing about the tax policy might be boring. I was happily proven wrong.

More than 50 people crowded the hearing room, and more than a dozen people testified -- all in favor of the bill. Most represented organizations such as the Oregon Food Bank, the Oregon Center for Public Policy, and other groups that are part of the Oregonians for Working Families Coalition. Bread is a member of the coalition, along with nearly 100 other organizations.

It's always great to hear testimony from organizations that serve low-income people, but what struck me is how many people had a personal story to tell about how the EITC impacted their lives. 

Andrea Paluso from Family Forward Oregon told the story of her mother, who worked a full-time job, a part-time job, and went to college full-time (and had stomach ulcers to show for it). Andrea testified about how EITC gave her mom the opportunity to "exhale for one second." Father C. Paul Schroeder of Portland's Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral testified about how when he was at seminary, the EITC gave him a "real shot in the arm" at a financially challenging point in his life. He also noted how he may have been reticent to apply for other forms of public assistance, but because it was part of a tax form he was going to fill out anyway, it provided a level of dignity that other programs might not.

Former EITC recipient Ian Finch, along with Janet Byrd from Neighborhood Partnerships and Joy Margheim from the Oregon Center on Public Policy, testifies before an Oregon Senate Hearing on expanding Oregon's state EITC (Photo: Matt Newell-Ching, Bread for the World)Perhaps the most powerful testimony of the day belonged to Ian Finch -- a former recipient of EITC. Ian was raised in poverty by his single mother. He became a single father of five children and was determined to break the cycle of poverty. Here's an excerpt from his testimony:    

Because of the EITC I was able to purchase a minivan and car insurance for a year. I was now able to accomplish much more because I had my own vehicle. It was great not to have to wait out in the cold and rain for buses anymore. It also helped my children to be able to do more outside activities. By purchasing the minivan, I was able to free up about three hours of my day because I didn't have to wait for buses and MAX trains.

The EITC has benefited my family in so many ways. I was able to take my family on vacation for the first time in our lives. While we were at Disneyland, my oldest daughter summed it up really well. She said, "Dad, we are finally here! You have worked so hard to make this a dream come true!" That is all I needed to hear to know that all the hard work was worth it.

When he spoke of his daughter's epiphany, you could tell how moved the Senate panel was, and I confess I teared up a little myself. 

Ian happily noted that he now earns too much money to be eligible for EITC, and he is not alone. In fact, more than half of people who claim the EITC do so for only one or two years, and families that received EITC benefits from 1989-2006 generated more than $500 billion in net tax revenue during that period. 

Still, most states do not have an EITC to supplement the federal credit, which underscores the importance of this year's Offering of Letters campaign to help working families bridge the gap between food and other basic necessities by protecting and strengthening the federal EITC and Child Tax credits. Improvements to these credits passed during the Bush (43) and Obama administrations expire at the end of the year. If the improvements expire, it's estimated that 1.5 million people will fall back into poverty. 

Let's git 'er done...

Matt Newell-Ching is Western Regional Organizer for Bread for the World.


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