Sandra Morgen studies whether Oregon’s tax laws target certain populations

By UO Student Lili Wagner

What do the military, food stamps, law enforcement, Social Security, the interest rate on the national debt, and the bridges over the Willamette River have in common?

Your tax dollars help pay for them all.

They feed the hungry. They help the elderly. They arm the military. They train teachers, heal the sick, and keep America from drifting further into the red.

But are they being spent fairly, and do the laws target specific populations?

Enter University of Oregon anthropology professor Sandra Morgen, the former vice provost for graduate studies and associate dean of the Graduate School who set out to study—and try to understand—systems of inequality, and along the way became an expert on the politics of taxes.

Morgen’s research has long concerned the intersection of gender, race, class, and public policy, with a particular focus on social welfare and public wealth distribution.

“Ten years of my research have focused on a large study of changes in Oregon policies not serving as well as they could, especially the low-income,” she said. “It always came back to taxes. How do people get certain ideas about tax fairness, distribution, and modulation of wealth inequality?”

Oregon is unique. While in many states only legislators decide tax policy, Oregon’s system of direct legislation allows residents to vote on tax ballot initiatives; Oregonians have voted on 80 tax ballot initiatives since 1970. Morgen looks at arguments on both sides of tax ballot initiative debates, looking for how they have been constructed to influence how people believe government should work, and, consequently, how they vote.

What Morgen has found relates broadly to general shifts in public mindset. The late 1970s saw a property tax rebellion, at both the state and federal levels. Moving away from property taxes—the primary way we pay for local services—the overall tax system became more regressive and placed a higher burden on the individual. Sales taxes and property taxes were less progressive, and the resulting feeling was that of unfairness.

Ballot Measure 5, voted on in 1990, amended the Oregon Constitution to establish limits on the state’s property taxes on real estate. The measure, one of the most contentious in Oregon history, transferred the responsibility for school funding from local government to the state, in an attempt to equalize backing. But the state had to simultaneously make up the difference lost because of the tax property limitations, precipitating a struggle to fund education.

“Ten years of my research have focused on a
large study of changes in Oregon policies not
serving as well as they could, especially the
low-income.” —Sandra Morgen

“The increase in individual burden made me want to study tax politics to understand why citizens who believe in public assistance turned from being publicly tax-minded to self-interestedly tax-minded,” Morgen explained.

In Oregon, private sector wages began to stagnate. Inequality increased.

“In the face of this, where do we get money so our universities don’t fall off the cliff?” she asked. “So we don’t have larger class sizes? The answer was to increase student tuition. Everything was squeezed by policies that tied the state’s hands.”

Unfortunately, fixing the property tax system, which Morgen believes to be broken, is difficult due to partisan politics. Lobbyists and big money in politics influence direct legislation, complicating the picture.

As a researcher, Morgen works to expose patterns in systems of inequality. As an educator, she works to foster critical awareness of these problems. A champion of higher education, proudly declaring herself to be a product of public institutions, Morgen’s goal is to encourage students to ask questions, and to know which questions to ask. Teaching courses including US Public Policy and Anthropology of the US, Morgen’s instruction focuses on problems of inequity.

“There are things we can do,” she said. “Fair taxes are just part of the picture. I don’t have an agenda in the classroom. There’s not one way to think about inequality. I want to develop critical thinkers, critical readers, critical viewers, (and) critical voters. I show them: ‘Here’s the rationale, here’s the policy, here’s the research,’ and I ask, ‘What do you think?’”

In addition to her work doing research and teaching, Morgen has in the past served as president of the Society for the Anthropology of North America, president of the Association for Feminist Anthropology, and an appointed member of the American Anthropological Association Commission on Race and Racism. Her passionate work has earned her tremendous recognition, and she has received the Career Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Field of Anthropology of the US from the Society for the Anthropology for North America, the Squeaky Wheel Award for Dedication to Achieving Gender Parity for Women in Anthropology from the American Anthropological Association, and many more.

For pleasure Morgen writes poetry and dances, but she laughed, “The reality is that many of us who teach, so love what we do that the line of work and pleasure is blurred.”