Malheur County: Lots Of Land, Very Few Jobs

Aug 8, 2012

Malheur County has the highest poverty rate in Oregon and the tenth highest in the U.S. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Amanda Peacher spoke with some of the county’s low-income residents, and filed this report on how they’re making ends meet.

Steve Magedanz sits in his one-bedroom apartment with the lights off and the TV on in the background. It’s a 95-degree day. When the heat becomes unbearable he’ll turn on the A.C., but keeping it off for now helps cut costs.

Magedanz has been unemployed for more than a year. A few weeks ago he had surgery for lung cancer, but his recovery hasn’t stopped his search for work.

He went to culinary school and wants a job as a chef, but hasn’t had luck at local restaurants.

“I'm not too proud to do certain jobs. Even though I have a degree in cooking doesn’t mean I wouldn’t take a.... I don't have to do haute couture cooking to fill my ego or something like that. I could work at Sizzler's and flip steaks and be okay,” Magedanz says.

Magedanz lives with his girlfriend Marsha, who is also unemployed. When they can afford the gas, they sometimes spend their evenings driving along the many farm roads that wind through Malheur County for entertainment.

They get by with food stamps, health insurance from the VA, and social security payments. Magedanz also gets assistance from a state program that helps people find vocational work.

Kelly Poe is with the Malheur County Commission on Children and Families. She says that some people find retail or other work in Ontario, but those are not necessarily high-paying jobs.

“We have a lot of fast food, a lot of part-time work, shift work, where people aren’t working full time or they’re not making much more than minimum wage,” Poe says.

Unemployment in Malheur County is at nine point five percent. That’s lower than some Oregon counties. But the poverty rate is almost forty percent, the highest in the state.

During the summer, the job market expands with seasonal work harvesting onions or sugar beets. But if you don't want to work in the fields, finding a job can be difficult.

When Steve Magedanz needs a break from the couch, he sometimes walks down the street to Mallard’s Grocery.

The roadside convenience store is a well-known icon in Ontario. It’s been around since at least the 1940s.

Kylee Aguiar has worked at the grocery for eight years.

“It never changes. People come here and they’re like, oh my gosh, it’s still here! You still sell chicken and joe joes? And we’re like, yeah -- we don’t know you, but we will!” Aguiar says.

That’s because Mallard’s is a place that sees a lot of regulars -- mostly people who live nearby. The grocery store sits on the edge of town in a neighborhood among run down apartment complexes and trailer homes. Over the years, Aguiar says she’s noticed the clientele change.

Aguiar: "A lot of customers that we have, have food stamps and live in the HUD housing. There’s a lot of it around here. I don't know, maybe Ontario is low-income, but there’s not a lot of job opportunities right now.”

Kelly Poe says that a number of social programs in the county try to help people find jobs, housing, food or child care.

Poe: “I think poverty in a rural area is different than it is in the city. In the city you have options. So if you need a particular service you usually have two or three places to choose from for that service and in a rural community there’s usually one. As much as it’s frustrating -- because we like to have a choice -- it forces us to work together.”

Poe, of the county commission on children and families, says that there aren’t really "deep pockets" in Ontario. In other words, there’s not one major donor or large corporation to support social programs.

Instead of $20,000 banquet dinners you see a lot of $1,000 car washes or bowling night fundraisers. But those dollars do make a difference in the community.

For instance, the local Kiwanis Club raises enough money to sponsor a free weekly lunch in a neighborhood park.

22-year-old Monica Armas comes there to eat occasionally. Today she’s here with her brother and her two sons, who are one and five. They just missed the free meal today, but they’re hanging out at the park to play.

Armas doesn’t have a job right now, but her husband works 14-hour days at two local restaurants.

“I’m thinking about going back to work, but it’s kinda hard thinking about going back to work with two kids,” Armas says.

With her husband working two jobs, Armas says life is a lot easier than it used to be when he worked just one.

“We didn’t have anything. We didn’t even have a table or a couch, anything, we used to sit on the ground. Sometimes we didn’t even have anything to eat.”

Life isn’t easy, but Armas says it’s better than it once was. Their income still puts them below poverty level for a family of four, but she’s proud that she and her husband were able to buy a small trailer home.

She says it feels good to have money to buy birthday gifts when a friend has a party.

“I’m in a pretty good place right now. We don’t really stress out as much as we used to. Before we didn’t have extra money for nothing, and now we do. We’re perfect right now.”

Back at his small apartment across town Steve Magedanz says his cancer gave him a different perspective on his life. His days would be less stressful if either he or his girlfriend could find work, but he was especially glad to have Marsha in his life after his health problems.

Magedanz: “The best thing about my life is Marsha. We get along like peas and carrots, like they say in Forest Gump. We’ve never lacked for anything. But my life just really isn’t complete because I need to work.” p> While the rest of Oregon saw unemployment drop by 0.9 percent since May 2011, the jobless rate in Malheur County has been almost stagnant. The county gained just twelve new jobs since last spring.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio