The end of each year often triggers reflection on what has gone on the past 365 days. Many of us take stock of successes, failures, dreams fulfilled, ambitions not quite met. We should all consider, though, what the year ahead can mean to better ourselves, our families, and our community.
We’d like to focus on the community. Malheur County saw its share of successes in the past year. Yet persistent challenges remain for our community. Too many of our children still live in poverty and fall short at school. Too many families struggle without enough income to make the lowest rung of middle class. Too many of our citizens betray their futures by abusing drugs and alcohol.
Here are our Top Five issues for concerted community attention in the next year.
POVERTY: Malheur County remains one of the most impoverished counties in Oregon. That has been the case for years. Devoted leaders and charities work hard to change that, yet progress remains elusive. The community needs to more clearly understand why poverty remains such an anchor. As a community, we invest through donations and our taxes a great sum of money to provide for those who can’t make it on their own. The safety net is essential, but can we do better to get people out of the net and on their own? Do we as a community care enough about this issue to seek even bolder solutions?
LABOR: One prospect for changing the poverty picture is the prospect of new jobs. Plenty appear to be in the offing for Malheur County – a new mushroom plant in Vale, a rail shipping center in Nyssa, a gold processing plant. The number of people unemployed right now is low. Employers throughout the area are competing to hire. If those new employers are really to take root, they will need workers. As a community, we need to consider what it’s going to take to draw in new employees. That likely could mean scaling up wages and more aggressively training those seeking to get on that ladder to the middle class.
HOUSING: “Affordable housing” has different meanings for people, but as a community we can’t expect to grow unless people have decent places to live. The city of Ontario recently took one modest step to encourage home construction. The new regional economic development board too can help figure out what is impeding housing. This is no mere issue of land use or contractor willingness. This is a core issue for Malheur County, for without more housing, all those new employees and those newly raised out of poverty will take their salaries and incomes home with them to Idaho. That doesn’t do much good for stabilizing and improving life in Malheur County.
DIVERSITY: One-third of those living in Malheur County are Hispanic or Latino, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. They don’t have a proportional say about life in the community. They are underrepresented among government and nonprofit leaders, in business, and in the social structure of the community. A community is never as strong as it can be when one segment or another seems to be left out. We need to find ways to invite broader involvement in civic structures to more fully represent the true diversity of Malheur County. That means breaking down perceptions, making the community seem a safer and more welcoming place, ensuring that an open door is an open door for all.
TREASURE VALLEY COMMUNITY COLLEGE: No institution in our community can have as profound an impact on all these issues as our local community college. The college has the ability to lift up those in poverty by providing or arranging a free education. The college can help employers train. The college can guide people through career changes. The college can be a safe haven for all. College leaders have to confront with unsparing attention the declines at Treasure Valley Community College so it can become more effective at leading the community into the future.
None of these are small tasks. None of these will resolve with meetings, talk, and reports. They all can be affected by citizens who won’t settle for status quo, who won’t accept being something less than we can be. We have within each of us and collectively the ability to make Malheur County better. Consider, please, how you will do that in the year ahead. — LZ