Image for Oregon’s Best of Times and Worst of Times
Oregon is fractured in many ways over homelessness, addiction and crime, but it has a history of collaboration, compromise and creative thinking that could re-insoure the Oregon Way. (OVBC image)

Values Survey Reveals Deep Divisions in Oregon, But Still Signs of Unity

“It was the best of times, and the worst of times” is the oft-quoted beginning of Charles Dickens” Tale of Two Citiesdescribing London and Paris between 1775 and 1793. It might equally apply to a sharply divided 21st century Oregon.

Columnist Dick Hughes began his latest post with a Dickensian twist:

“The long-run advantages that Oregon offers in terms of lots of job opportunities, scenic beauty, high quality of life – some of those things are still with us,” senior economist Josh Lehner told Oregon legislators.

“But,” Hughes observed, “there is no denying the many challenges facing our state: Homelessness and a vast shortage of housing. Substance abuse and lack of treatment options. Mental health concerns and lack of treatment options. Struggling students. Opportunity gaps between urban and rural Oregon. Crime. Civic dysfunction. The economy.”

Oregon Values and Beliefs Survey
Hughes used this contrast to set up a review of the most recent result from a survey conducted on behalf of the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center (OVBC), which confirmed deep divisions within the state.

“Oregonians remain divided in the direction of our state, with a slight plurality saying we are off on the wrong track (46%) instead of heading in the right direction (45%),” according to OVBC’s survey conducted in August. The result is slightly better than survey results in 2022, but reflects a persistent pattern of division in previous years.

Oregonians are united in worrying about their future. “Oregonians are much more united in their worry about the future of their area of Oregon. 73% say they are somewhat (43%) or very (30%) worried. A mere 4% say they are not at all worried, and 20% say they are not too worried.” Republicans and social conservatives are more worried than Democrats and social liberals.

Unsurprisingly, fears are linked to a sense of economic well-being. “A little more than half of Oregonians feel they are being left behind economically (54%). In response to a validation question, a lesser but significant percentage (45%) disagree that they are doing well economically. Older Oregonians feel the least left behind. “Respondents who are most likely to say they feel left behind and not doing well economically are renters and those in the lowest income bracket. “

A narrow majority of Oregonians still feel socially connected and happy with their communities. “Those who are more likely to say they feel left out or socially disconnected are similar to the groups more likely to report economic hardship. Those between the ages of 18-44 years, people whose education includes high school or less and people of color all feel more socially disconnected than their peers.”

The survey demonstrates a high degree of concern about homelessness, which topped the list in every demographic group. The next highest concerns were substance abuse, inadequate housing supply and crime.

Ranking down the list of concerns were the political climate, climate change , criminal justice reform and economic equality. Other issues that drew some mention included education and schools, social services, taxes, infrastructure and healthcare.

“There are things that all Oregonians value about living in Oregon that cut across political divided and represent common ground.”

Things Still Unite Oregonians
OVBC also explored what still unites Oregonians. 67% of survey respondents said they believed “there are things that all Oregonians value about living in Oregon that cut across political divided and represent common ground we can stand on together to make our state a better place.”  That finding was stronger in this year’s survey than the previous two years.

The most optimistic Oregonians are “those with school-aged children (74%), people with a higher annual income ($100K+ 73%) and those with some college or a 4-year degree (68-73%).”

A summation quote from the survey said, “Despite feeling negative about their area of the state, Oregonians are hopeful believing there are things we all value that represent the common ground we can stand on together to make our state a better place.”

Hughes offers his own survey summation. “It gives hope that rank-and-file Oregonians, not just elected leaders, can work together to turn things around. A place to start: Cut the trash talk. Stifle the snide remarks. Don’t sugarcoat Oregon’s shortcomings but aggressively attack the state’s problems, not its policymakers. Develop workable solutions, regardless of whose idea they are, by finding common ground.”

Reclaiming the Oregon Way
A veteran of Oregon’s political scene, Hughes urges reclaiming The Oregon Way, which emphasized collaboration and compromise in the name of progress.

“Collaboration and compromise do not rule out discussion and debate,” Hughes wrote. “As Kevin Frazier wrote in a 2021 essay for The Other Oregon magazine, that approach often yielded the roadmap for getting things done: ‘Leaders from both sides of the Cascades and all parts of the political spectrum came together to forge the policies that still make Oregon a special place to call home.’”

The housing, drug addiction and education issues bedeviling Oregon could benefit from collaboration and compromise. The contemporary proving ground for that approach could be the economy, Hughes suggests, where “collaboration and creative thinking can have an impact.”

He pointed to the most recent state revenue report that noted Oregon deaths outnumber Oregon births, the state is experiencing an outmigration of families and Baby Boomers are retiring. Hughes notes that a growing population was a key to fueling Oregon economic growth in the past decade.

“An inadequate labor force hurts individual employers, as well as the overall economy,” Hughes pointed out. “However, state economists say the existing labor force could grow substantially, ‘if Oregon were to address and close some of the historical disparities based on age, educational attainment, race and ethnicity, and sex or gender.’ That will require rethinking by employers, community leaders and other policymakers, plus a willingness by individual Oregonians to give folks the opportunity to develop needed skills and experience.”

“Oregonians can do our part to recruit and welcome new residents, particularly younger workers looking to put down long-term roots,” Hughes advised. “When we believe in Oregon – all of Oregon, rural and urban, East and West – others will, too.”

It will take the same kind of rethinking and rededication to find workable, affordable solutions to housing, addiction treatment, mental health and education.