In the community, Local government

Some improvements, but poverty among Malheur County children still high

Malheur County Judge Dan Joyce says he’s ready to act on child poverty.

He intends to have the county back efforts to find money for more homes.

Joyce decided that’s a prime way he and county commissioners can help drive down the rate of child poverty in Malheur County. That rate has been persistently among the highest in Oregon.

“Our No. 1 goal is to work on financing,” Joyce said in an interview.

He made the declaration after spending time recently looking into local child poverty.

“It’s been very interesting – more interesting than I ever dreamed,” Joyce said.

The county’s move would be among local steps to improve life for 2,400 or so children living in poverty.

Some progress has been made in the six months since the Enterprise published an investigation of child poverty.

The Treasure Valley Children’s Relief Nursery now provides day care for some parents, freeing the mothers and fathers to get jobs or return to school.

Lifeways, the area’s primary mental health service, recently opened a new Youth Center. That provides better care for what many see as one of the most pressing needs among the county’s children.

Community in Action recently celebrated the grand opening of its new youth center in Ontario. That provides homeless teens and young adults a place to turn for help ­– or just a respite from enduring life without a home.

“We have a lot of work to do. We need help to pull ourselves out of this and we need to work together to support children and families.”

–Dan Ramirez, Oregon Department of Human Services district director

The newspaper’s series made the staff at the local office of the state Department of Human Services “more aware of community concerns and perspectives, helping us to have a better understanding of the situation in our county,” said Dan Ramirez, Ontario district director for the agency.

Still, he and others who work on poverty issues in Malheur County say there is a long way to go.

 “We are in trouble as a community,” Ramirez said. “We have a lot of work to do. We need help to pull ourselves out of this and we need to work together to support children and families.”

Poverty, wrote one worker at the Malheur Education Service District, “affects every aspect of kids’ lives – physical, emotional, developmental, social. It can lead to abuse and neglect.”

Since last summer, “the problem of poverty has worsened,” according Lindsay Grosvenor, with the Ontario unit of the Oregon Food Bank. “This becomes especially evident around the holidays when people are making difficult decisions about how to spend their money – for example, deciding whether to heat the home, purchase food or buy gifts.”

“My own children have friends who are unhoused,” said a Malheur Education Service District worker. “Food insecurity is on the rise. I see post after post on Facebook with people needing rides to food pantries because they are out of gas. And I know they have children.”

Saint Alphonsus Medical Center-Ontario in July published its latest report on community health needs.

“We heard that poverty and income constraints for many individuals and families are putting additional strain on the top community needs identified in the report, which include safe affordable housing, transportation and access to health care,” said Rebecca Lemmons of Saint Alphonsus. She is the organization’s regional director for community health.

Steven Jensen, president of Lifeways, shares what many involved in poverty work believe – that resolving poverty will take a communitywide effort.

“We need to understand that child poverty is real and children are suffering, which will have grave consequences into the future with increased mental health and substance use problems,” Jensen said.

Jody Warnock, executive director of Community in Action, agrees.

“If we want to have any hope of a thriving community in the years to come it’s time to take action,” Warnock said. “Everyone knows there is an issue but they choose to turn a blind eye to it. It’s time for Malheur County to wake up.”

From government to nonprofit, a key need emerges over and over: Money.

Who wields the power to act

Malheur County is served by two legislators with power to act on that need. State Sen. Lynn Findley, Republican from Vale, and state Rep. Mark Owens, Republican from Crane, both sit on the legislature’s powerful budget committee.

Findley and Owens, however, didn’t respond to written questions asking them to describe what steps they have taken on child poverty in Malheur County.

One county commissioner, Ron Jacobs, didn’t respond to questions either. Commissioner Jim Mendiola said “we’ve got plenty of money” going to local agencies and that there’s “nothing I can do personally.”

U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz, Republican from Ontario, has served in government posts representing Malheur County for 18 years.

Bentz acknowledged in an email that he hadn’t asked key federal agencies such as U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or the U.S. Department of Agriculture to act on child poverty in Malheur County.

He said he did support Congressional action to fund the nation’s primary program to provide food to needy children and their families.

“It is my responsibility to support funding for those programs that have proven to be effective in addressing the issues that cause or contribute to child poverty,” Bentz said. He said he would “listen to members of the local communities who suggest innovative means to better address child poverty issues.”

Over and over, those involved in poverty issues said help from the state and the county is needed.

A focus on housing

Joyce said funding for more housing seems essential.

“All of our current housing has been used,” he said, and Ontario’s tiny homes project for unsheltered people has a waiting list.

He vowed to have the county “aggressively” pursue state and federal grants and other funding to develop housing.

That means recruiting help from legislators and organizations that lobby on county issues.

“Lack of adequate and affordable housing has always been an issue,” Ramirez said. “The population in need of housing continue to outpace availability. We still have many unhoused and do not have a shelter or mission. More people are visibly sleeping outdoors and in vehicles.”

That includes children.

Mary Ann Almaraz works for the Ontario School District, tasked with helping homeless students.

She said a local shelter as temporary housing would help.

“This is so needed and it would be a huge help to families living in their cars right now,” Almaraz said.

An Education Service District worker urged “work on affordable housing that is not camp trailers. Kids need space and yards.”

Malheur County Circuit Judge Lung Hung sees the results of poverty in his courtroom, not only with accused criminals but as the state acts to protect abused children. More homes are needed.

“We’re missing adequate funding for housing, said Hung.

Dave Goldthorpe, Malheur County district attorney, said that more transitional housing is needed. That would help people released from jail or prison have a better chance.

The intent is to give them some time to get established on probation or parole, get employment, and then find a long-term housing solution,” Goldthorpe said.

He also said such housing is needed for those with mental health issues.

He said the Legislature should help and the county should provide “leadership directing funds or soliciting funds” for such housing.

The hunger factor

The hunger factor

Hunger among children also remains a prime concern.

“Children cannot learn, grow and develop if they are hungry,” said Tim Heinze, executive director of the Treasure Valley Children’s Relief Nursery in Ontario.

Grosvenor said more funding for food supplies is needed.

“Single-parent households and people of color experience disproportionately higher rates of hunger,” she said. “Many of these children have parents who work in this community tending to the crops that help feed us, yet are unable to feed their own families because they do not make a livable wage.”

An Education Service District worker agreed that more state funding for food benefits is needed.

“Subsidize the working poor more with benefits that they do not lose entirely when they start making more,” the worker wrote.

Authorities say more focus is needed as well as more money.

“We could start by prioritizing child poverty when it comes to identifying local projects and initiatives,” Grosvenor said.

“Being rural, we need to increase contact with children after school and on weekends,” Hung said. “Just like school, contact with children allows our community access to children and connecting them with services.”

He said people could help by donating to or volunteering with community groups focused on youth.

Ken Hart, CEO of Valley Family Health, said his organization serves 6,000 children in the Treasure Valley and “many of those children live in poverty.”

He said Valley Family and others are working to provide more physical and mental health care. He said local leaders and government should work to create more local jobs as one way to address poverty.

Jensen of Lifeways agreed that “there aren’t enough high paying jobs.”

Changing the trajectory of poverty

Ramirez, the state executive, said education and job training is one path.

“Those businesses who invest in education and skills training for their current and future workforce will in turn see increased business and return on their investment, improving the lives of many,” Ramirez said.

“We need the support of county commissioners to make the system changes needed to change the trajectory of poverty,” wrote an education service district worker.

Organizations need to work together, avoiding duplication and deepening the impact, officials said.

An Education Service District worker noted many groups get money for poverty work.

“If we could come up with some common goals as to what we can do to combat this issue, we could leverage or go after grant opportunities,” the worker wrote. “I think that we all also see the poverty from different lenses and there may be some great ideas out there to combat it if we could all start focusing.”

Heinze agreed that there should be “better coordination – somehow – of services.”

“If there was a better way to coordinate our activities and collaborate rather than compete, we would likely do a better job and be able to serve more people,” he said.

Lemmons said policies should change to “help keep people sustainably housed, to encourage local food systems to keep food local and affordable” and to provide more day care “so parents can work but not spend their entire paycheck on child care.”

Jensen said that “this is a community effort – no one organization can do it on their own.”

“We have an exceptionally high number of nonprofit organizations, all seeking the same dollars and trying to help people,” said Ramirez. “We are struggling to work together as a community to collaborate to support the health and wellbeing of children and families.”

“Efforts need to be combined to fight this issue,” said Warnock of Community in Action.
“It will likely take a village of all interested organizations and coalitions and businesses working together to solve these challenging issues,” said Lemmons.

She noted the work already underway.

“While the rates of childhood poverty are alarming, there is also some heart in knowing that many amazing providers in Malheur County have resources and service they are providing daily to do what they can,” Lemmons said.

But community attention is essential too, experts said.

“There are still many who turn a blind eye to those who are in need yet state something must be done,” Almaraz said.

Factors causing high rates of child poverty aren’t “going to go away or get better by ignoring them,” Heinze said.

Contact Editor Les Zaitz: [email protected].


This includes the elements from the Enterprise series “Children of Poverty,” published June 20 through July 19, 2023. Access to this material is being provided free as a community service of the Enterprise. To offer comments or ask questions, please contact Editor Les Zaitz: [email protected].






News tip? Send your information to [email protected].

HOW TO SUBSCRIBE – The Malheur Enterprise delivers quality local journalism – fair and accurate. You can read it any hour, any day with a digital subscription. Read it on your phone, your Tablet, your home computer. Click subscribe – $7.50 a month.