Stone Soup and a Walk for Warmth

By Rosemary Powers, Community Comment January 31, 2009 09:39 am
The story of Stone Soup seems a fitting tale for our time of economic distress. In this old fable, a stranger enters a poor village seeking a place to sleep for the night and something to eat. The suspicious and hard-up villagers deny having anything to share until he charms them into making a wonderful soup for everyone using water, a “special” stone, and their many small contributions that will “make the soup taste better.” ...

I’ve been thinking about this story as I learn of the increasing numbers of business closures, layoffs and budget cuts — in our community, the state of Oregon and beyond. I hope that various plans for economic stimulus packages are successful, but even workable plans take time. Meanwhile, many people in our “village” face incredible hardships today.

The freezing winter temperatures, coupled with the current economic disaster, reveal a home energy affordability gap of crisis proportions. People who study home energy costs estimate that people can afford to pay about 6 percent of annual income on energy. But what if your family income places you at the current federal poverty level ($22,050 per year for a family of four)?

With respect to energy affordability, low-income residents of Oregon face some of the worst conditions in the United States. Oregon families trying to survive at half the federal poverty level (about $10,000), pay a whopping 44 percent of their annual income on home energy (the second highest percent in the country). We might think that low-income residents with incomes at 185 percent of poverty level would be doing better, and they are. But relative to people at this level in other states, these low-income Oregonians rank No. 1 in the gap between affordability and actual energy costs (about $744 more a year than would be affordable given their income).

Some energy assistance programs exist. But for Oregon, the federal assistance program currently covers only 10.4 percent of the affordability gap, and other utility- and community-based programs provide help to about a quarter of those who request it. In addition, home energy assistance is often capped out at under $300 a year per family.

What does this all mean? With 22 percent of Oregon’s children under age 18 from families with income at or below the federal poverty level, with the unemployment rate in Oregon at 9 percent (12.8 percent in Union County), with the price of home heating double what it was in 2000 (with the largest increases occurring in the past year), such families face the following dramatic decisions and consequences:

• Increased hunger and malnutrition when forced to choose between heating and eating.

• Declining health due to inability to fill prescriptions, reduced medications, going without care.

• Elders, those with disabilities or medical conditions, and small children risk hypothermia.

• People endanger health and safety by using alternates such as kerosene heaters, candles, lanterns, fireplaces or charcoal briquettes.

• People get evicted and may become homeless. Many will not be able to regain their housing; children can end up leaving school.

• Children may be placed in foster care if their family loses utility service since this can lead to parents being charged with neglect.

• Those in subsidized housing may lose housing vouchers if power is shut off.

So what to do? The Stone Soup metaphor is not a perfect fit. Unlike the starving villagers of the story, not all of us face the dire situation I have described above. Many of us complain about rising home energy prices, but are able to take the higher bills in stride without having to forego other basic needs. We might turn down the thermostat several degrees to save money, or try other means of energy conservation in a commitment to use fewer of our planet’s resources. But the fable urges us to do more.

Consider joining the first annual Union County Walk for Warmth on Saturday, Feb. 14, any time between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.. The event features short round-trip (1- to 3-mile) walks from the Riveria School at 2609 N. Second St. in La Grande. (Indoor walks are also available). Pledges of any amount will assist Community Connection in its efforts to fill the home heating gap for families in Union County.

The Walk for Warmth is organized by the EOU Alliance for Social Change and C.U.R.R.E.N.T.S. of justice for peace and sponsored by the La Grande Road Runners. For more information and pledge forms call 962-3819. To celebrate the power of the Stone Soup fable, we plan to cook up a big pot of soup for everyone to share at noon.

Rosemary Powers is a La Grande resident and a professor at EOU.