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Take another look at the Astoria Plan

Unfortunately, President Trump’s recent budget proposal includes drastic cuts in programs designed to help the unemployed. Additionally, there is a reference to establishing a work requirement for those hoping to qualify for financial assistance. This idea is based on a misguided concept that people on “welfare” are either too lazy to get a job or they are crafty enough to rig the system.

In the early 1950s, as president of Clatsop Community College in Astoria, I watched over a unique, federally funded program at the college that helped people who had been receiving welfare payments for seven years or longer to step away from those monthly payments and move into meaningful employment. Rather than merely doling out monthly welfare checks, the participants on this program were given extensive help on dealing with the multiple factors that put them on welfare in the first place.

In other words, recognition was given to the largely overlooked fact that, for many people who were “chronically unemployed,” the absence of a job was not their biggest problem. Unemployment was merely the symptom of their problem. Some of these welfare recipients had undiagnosed illness including high blood pressure, diabetes, circulatory problems, heart disease, etc. Many had failing eyesight, allergies, and severe dental problems including rotten teeth and severely infected gums. A surprising number of these folks could not read or write.

Many belonged to itinerant fruit-picking families who, with their children, followed the crop harvests from Mexico to Canada

12 months a year. Many had “learned” from their parents to be comfortable with not being able to read or write.

And finally, there were those with large families who could not afford to “go off” welfare payments because doing so would mean a loss of family income. The pride of having a paying job and providing for one’s family were ideals that were not part of their culture. In fact, the chronic unemployed belonged to a subculture that looked, talked and acted quite differently.

This program, dubbed the “Astoria Plan,” hired physicians, speech therapists, psychologists and clothing and make-up consultants. Babysitters were hired to provide proper home care for the children. Partners were counseled to adjust to forthcoming changes. Many were provided remedial education specialists who steered their clients through basic education to college-level classes when appropriate.

The program was an amazing success.

When U.S. Sen. Wayne Morse heard of it, he read a summary into the Congressional Record. However, there was a tragic ending to this program when the plan’s “poster boy,” a young man with a very high IQ and an engaging personality, ended his life by jumping off the recently completed bridge between Oregon and Washington. (He was one of the adults who entered the program not being able to read or write.)

This lofty goal of helping the chronically unemployed to move from their monthly welfare payments to having a regular job was now recognized as a big and complicated challenge that required a great amount of funding and could not operate “on the cheap.” When the program expired about six months later, the new Congress concluded the program was not cost-effective, and the program was dropped. Other cheaper and far less effective programs were substituted, but they, too, were eventually discontinued.

Perhaps it is time to take another look at the “Astoria Plan.” It is not cheap. It cannot cut corners. The important thing is indisputable: It works.

Stewart McCollom of Ashland is a former acting president of Southern Oregon College and a former Jackson County commissioner.

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