EDITORIAL: Let’s knock Malheur County out of ranks of worst child poverty rates

As one, Malheur County citizens need to rise up and say: No more. No more will children go home from school, facing a hungry weekend. No more will teens be told there is no help for their emotional issues. No more will school employees pick up kids sleeping in cars to get them to class.

For too long, Malheur County has ranked high in the number of its children living in poverty. That’s clear and well documented in our just-concluded series, “Children of Poverty.” That means kids aren’t living in decent homes. That means kids are tending themselves because parents are too exhausted from poor-paying jobs – or victims of addiction. That means children too easily can see only a future of despair and need.

Hundreds of Malheur County kids are missing out at a fair shot at life. They are chained by generational behavior, by parental neglect – and by the neglect of their community. No one, not a soul, in Malheur County, should look the other way.

Many aren’t. As the series chronicled, there are heroes all over the place. Nonprofits struggle with small budgets to deliver big results. Cops act as taxi drivers, helping kids get to medical appointments. Social workers try to help, but at times impeded by heavy caseloads and or inadequate resources.

And then there are the schools. Teachers, administrators and others in our local districts have taken on – or been expected to perform – tasks well beyond teaching in a classroom. They often are the best help a child can get, and many add counselor, driver, grocery shopper to their duties.

But those educators and social workers need the rest of us to step up.

Defining child poverty

Children who grow up in families enduring economic hardship can be impoverished by lack of life’s basic needs. They often do not have a stable supply of food, adequate and safe shelter, means for education or care for their medical and mental health traumas. As a consequence, children’s physical, cognitive and emotional development is affected.

The series identified broad factors that are leaving hundreds of our children living impoverished lives.

Housing is a particular challenge. There isn’t enough. It isn’t affordable. And government and landlords have erected significant barriers. The need for housing affects the poor the hardest, but housing also is weakening the community fabric. We can’t house those who want to work here. And that means we can’t easily attract new employers.

Food insecurity leaves thousands hungry. How can that be in a community that prides itself on helping feed the country? Some like to chastise those receiving public help – “those people,” you know. Let’s see how many healthy meals you can produce for $200 a month. No child should ever go to bed or show up for school hungry.

Mental health needs among children are vastly undertreated in our area. That means children can’t readily function in school, in society or even at home. But we tell their families that little help is available here – head to Portland or Idaho if you truly need care. That’s just wrong.

As a community, we haven’t committed enough money, people or even the will to tackle child poverty.

One reason is lack of focus. Individuals at schools, at nonprofits, in some government agencies work hard – in their areas. But as the series makes clear, the efforts can be splintered, the impact diffused. If those doing this work aren’t clear on who provides what, how can a needy parent readily find care for hungry children?

Another reason is inadequate money. Yes, money. More people trained in this work are needed. And key assets are missing, notably in mental health.

Finally, some leaders don’t consider this their issue. They are silent on this community crisis.

What is needed is some way to pull the pieces together, to assess the gaps, and then figure out how to fill those gaps. More food? More treatment providers? More counselors?

This is not a challenge just for those employed to work with children. All of us must, without delay, agree that this shameful rate of child poverty is no longer going to be tolerated. We’re no longer going to look the other way. We’re no long going to look at our neighbors in need and privately blame them for their lot. That’s not the way rural people help each other.

There are a hundred ways an individual, business or civic organization can step up. We’ll detail those in the coming weeks. Most crucial is that every individual accepts the duty to change this reality. No child, ever, should go hungry, unclothed or unhoused. Malheur County, let’s get to work. – LZ

YOUR OPINION? Share your thoughts with a Letter to the Editor or guest column. Submit them via email to Editor Les Zaitz – [email protected].


CHILDREN OF POVERTY: The series and videos