VALE — Two out of five children in Malheur County continue to live in poverty, according to a new report, and a decisive solution to the local challenge remains elusive.
The level of poverty in the county is the second worst in the state, and far higher than the state average.
The report by Portland-based Children First for Oregon showed a 38 percent childhood poverty rate for those 18 and under – a total of 2,891 children. The rate is fractionally lower than last year.
The state average is 21 percent.
The report reviewed five categories in Malheur County – health, child welfare, financial stability, early childhood education and youth development and education.
Jason Gettle, research director at Children First for Oregon, said the report shows contrasts for the county.
“It looks like the county is doing relatively well by some measures,” he said.
He said the county is doing well in high school graduation. The rate is the number of students who graduate in four years with a high school diploma.
Malheur County ranked eighth in the state with an 84 percent graduation rate.
The county childhood immunization rate is also stable at 72 percent, according to the report. The state average is 70 percent.
Still, Gettel said, the childhood poverty rate is worrisome.
“The child poverty rates are second to bottom,” he said.
The high childhood poverty rate in Malheur County may reflect a national trend, he said.
“Poverty rates are often elevated in more rural areas,” he said.
Kelly Poe, director of community-based services for the Malheur Education Service District, said the high local poverty rate defies easy solutions.
“I think it is a lot of things,” she said.
Poe said the county’s proximity to Idaho is one factor.
“I think the services are better in Oregon, more accessible. Oregon provides services to children and families and people stay on this side of the border,” Poe said.
Pervasive economic challenges also play a role, Poe said.
“Parents or the people who are bringing in money to the household are not earning family wage jobs,” Poe said.
There is no single solution to the problem, Poe said.
“You can’t just say we need to raise minimum wage,” she said.
Instead, solutions to the problem run a gamut and are interconnected she said.
“We need people earning more money through skilled jobs. The people who are earning and contributing to the finances of a household need to have skills to earn higher wages and we need higher wage jobs available. So which do you do first?” she said.
A community-wide effort will be key, Poe said.
“It is not just one thing,” she said.
Poe said one step for the community to address poverty is a simple one.
“The community can, in my opinion, first of all care. If we care for kids, they can do a lot of really good things. Church things, volunteer, be mentors. Just be nice. If we create an atmosphere in our community where our kids feel welcome, then kids start doing better,” Poe said.
That caring, she said, can manifest itself in a number of ways, such as attending school-sponsored events and other community-based efforts.
“Just show up,” Poe said. “If people own a business, they can reach out and try to figure out how to do internships. Open up places for kids to come in and see what its like to work at the BLM or city hall or for law enforcement,” Poe said.
Poe said she is optimistic.
“The thing I hear that is so interesting in community meetings now, versus 10 years ago, is people are now talking about the need for kids to have hope for the future. That is where the community can rally, create a place where kids are proud to be from,” Poe said.
Gettel said arranging the right resources for families is another key to overcome poverty.
“We need to prioritize polices and programs that help increase family financial security,” he said.
That means, Gettel said, a focus on public safety net programs.
“It includes mostly federal programs, and some state programs. Like earned income tax credits, temporary assistance for needy families, food stamps, programs families rely on when they’ve lost income,” he said.