Wyden: Federal budget should cover social, climate policies
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden says public advocacy will push a divided Congress to pass the social support and climate-change measures that President Joe Biden has included in his Build Back Better plan — even if they fall short of the budget amounts that advocates seek.
The Oregon Democrat also says not to take his word for it, but what Oregon advocates say about the need for more subsidized housing, paid sick leave, alternatives to fossil fuels, support for caregivers and federal authority to negotiate drug prices.
"What you have just heard from our guests here is that it is critical to get these reforms in place," Wyden said at a presentation Friday, Oct. 2.
"I believe that when the word gets out in people's kitchens and living rooms about what these reforms are really going to mean for families, we're going to be able to get these changes we really need. It's going to cause families to say these ought to have been done years ago."
Wyden and five others spoke at an event at Stephens Creek Crossing, which consists of more than 100 subsidized apartments that opened in the Multnomah neighborhood of Southwest Portland in 2014. The project by Home Forward, Multnomah County's housing agency, replaced the 60 units in Hillsdale Terrace built in 1968 — and includes 13 apartments built with the help of the federal tax credit for low-income housing. Monthly rents for them range from $735 for one bedroom to $1,200 for four bedrooms.
Biden's plan proposes to expand the credit, which investors use to offset their taxes, so that Oregon and other states can double eligible housing projects.
"Until we get to a place in this country where people are being paid wages that allow them to afford a decent apartment and put food on the table, we need the low-income housing tax credit program to make more of these apartments available," Michael Buonocore, executive director of Home Forward, said.
He acknowledged that the subsidized rents mentioned above are "not cheap," but still less than found in the private rental market.
"There are many people who qualify for deep subsidies for our public housing program, but there are not currently enough of those resources for everyone who needs them. There should be," he said. "There are also many people who make too much money for a subsidy program but still need affordable rents."
Wyden echoed recent comments by Biden that the pending budget resolution should cover as many programs as possible even if the total amounts are less than what advocates hope for. The Senate Budget Committee started at $6 trillion over 10 years. Biden agreed to $3.5 trillion, but West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat whose vote is key to passage in an evenly split Senate, has proposed $1.5 trillion.
Wyden said he did not want to speculate on specific numbers, but the general programs.
"When they are well-received, citizens come back and tell their members of Congress that we want you to build on them and expand them," he said.
Advocates speak out
Others who spoke:
• Joan Morgan of Happy Valley, an advocate for Family Forward Oregon and bone marrow donor transplant coordinator at Oregon Health & Science University, who supports a national program for paid family leave. (Oregon has approved its own paid leave program, which is scheduled to start in two years.)
Morgan is the mother of two children, the second born in 2016. She also provided care for her parents. Her mother died two weeks ago after symptoms of Parkinson's disease; she was able to be at the bedside, but had to balance work and caregiving. Her father has late-stage lung cancer.
"Everything has changed for my family," she said.
"This is why it is critical that Congress include a national paid leave program in the Build Back Better package. Passing a paid-leave program will ensure that all workers can shoulder care for a loved one or tend to their own recovery without having to worry about losing wages or their jobs."
• Yusuf Arifin is a junior at Sunset High School in Washington County, an intern at the Oregon League of Conservation Voters and a climate-change activist. He said Wyden's proposal in the budget resolution to reduce 44 energy tax breaks to just three — development of alternatives to oil, gas and coal; transportation, and energy efficiency — will help, along with measures in another bill to expand charging stations and promote electric vehicles.
"These changes will resonate not just on the world stage, but are made for people like me and my generation," he said.
"We are going to grow up in a world where climate change will be even more severe than it is today. If these policies are implemented, we can see a spark of hope that the cries we have been saying are actually being listened to. If we do not act now, there might never be action."
• Jan Montez of Salem is a home care worker affiliated with Service Employees International Union. She said Biden's plan should include the full amount he has proposed to expand caregiving, which is expected to be one of the nation's fastest growing job sectors in the next few years.
She has cared for her mother, who has symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer's disease, for nine years. Unionization has helped boost her pay and obtain some benefits. But she said that's a bargain compared with more expensive care in nursing homes and assisted living centers.
"I think caregivers — all caregivers — are the most important people. Without us, people cannot live their lives," she said. "We need to stop this utter madness and take care of those who need care."
• Hailey Adkisson of Salem teaches communication at Linn-Benton Community College. In 2020, her 6-month-old daughter underwent two brain surgeries that did not help with a rare form of childhood epilepsy. A medication that offered some hope for child development — "it is unlikely we will ever have a cure" — was listed at $280,000 for a total seven-week treatment.
"There was no possible way we could afford $280,000 worth of medication for our daughter," said Adkisson, who spoke for Patients for Affordable Drugs. "Every day I recognize how privileged we are to have the insurance coverage we have for ourselves. However, I already know that could change any minute."
Biden's plan includes a provision, supported by Wyden and House counterparts but opposed by the drug industry, for authority to negotiate drug prices for Medicare and Medicaid, the two largest federal health insurance programs.
"Throughout this epilepsy journey, I have met many families who have had to make incredibly difficult decisions in order to avoid expensive medications," Adkisson said. "How do you say no to a potentially lifesaving drug for your child? I want to use my voice to fight for those who do not have the same privileges as my family."
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