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Oregon's Working Poor: Wages

John Rosman

A new census report shows Oregon's poverty rate rose to more than fifteen percent in 2013.  In this series, we meet several families who are “working poor” or living below 200 percent of the poverty line. We visit Malheur County, which for the past decade, has had some of the highest rates of both poverty and unemployment in Oregon.

Rhonda Harvey sits at the back of a hotel classroom in Ontario.

She’s taking the class to get a certificate in diabetes nutrition, and that could qualify her for a better job. Forty-four-year-old Harvey is always looking for opportunities to earn more as a caregiver. She has three part-time jobs: Two are in group homes for people with disabilities. Her third job is her favorite: she’s paid by the state to care for her elderly mother.

Harvey: It’s a crazy schedule (laughs).

Harvey works thirty hours a week at one job, fifteen hours a week at a second, and takes additional night shifts whenever she can fit them in. For two of her jobs, she earns minimum wage, or nine dollars and ten cents per hour.

Harvey: On a normal month when I don’t have like any extra hours or overtime or anything ...I bring home probably 1100 per month.

Her income supports her eight-person household, including her three young kids (including the 24-year old?), four grandkids, and her twenty-four-year-old daughter who was injured in a job accident. Her daughter gets help from the state, with disability and cash assistance. They also receive between two and three hundred dollars in food stamps a month from the government and $184 in child support from Harvey’s ex-husband, but every month is still a financial stretch.

Harvey: The hardest things is that when you’re on a  tight budget and you live check to check, you don’t have that extra money for, like any surprises. I had a flat tire, didn’t have the money to buy a new tire, so I had to go and get a payment advance from my job to buy a new tire, which just threw me behind for next month.

Like many people across the state, even though Harvey works, she has a hard time making ends meet. In Oregon, about one-third of families are working poor. According to the U.S. Census, the median income in Malheur County is just over thirty-seven thousand dollars a year for a family of four. Harvey’s annual income is less than half that.

The hardest thing about living in poverty, says Harvey, is providing for her kids.

Harvey: They want bikes and this and that and things like that this and that the things that all kinds want and I just tell them I can’t afford it and they’re just going to have to wait. I get tired of telling them no all the time. But when you don’t have it you don’t have it.

On the other side of town, Bertha Hernandez is fitting students for uniforms at the school where she works. She’s the meal director for the school, and also helps out in the office.

Hernandez’s job supports her family of six. By many accounts, she’s doing well. She has a full-time job that she enjoys, her family is healthy, and they own their three-bedroom trailer in the tiny town of Vale, a ½ hour out of Ontario.

But  even with a full-time job Hernandez says that supporting a family of six is a struggle. She takes home about fifteen hundred dollars per month. Her husband gets seasonal work in an onion processing plant, but only in the winter.

Hernandez: We can’t save. Not at this point. If it’s not one thing it’s another with us. Like, the bathroom, I don’t know what’s up with the power on but the light won’t turn on. I mean the connection works but the light won’t turn on. Our dryer is broke. So if it’s not one thing it’s another.”

As her youngest daughter asks if she can go outside, she ticks off the things she’d like to be able to pay for -- credit card debt, overdue dental work, a working air conditioner. In her dream category, she lists a family road trip.

Later that night, Hernandez makes dinner for her four kids and her husband in the small kitchen of their trailer home.

 Hernandez: We’re having breakfast for lunch--for dinner. Usually when we have leftover food I try to use it up because I won’t eat it--they won’t eat it.”  

According to the state Bureau of Labor and Industries, nearly 150,000 Oregonians earn minimum wage. A proposal to raise Oregon’s minimum wage failed in the last legislative session.

Hernandez has always been able to put food on the table, and she can pay most of her bills. She says the family finances allows them to get by. But like many families in Oregon, they can’t really get ahead.

When dinner’s ready her four kids gather. The table has only three chairs for the family of six so, Hernandez stands, her husband sits with the baby on his lap, and her oldest perches with a plate on the couch. She’d love for her family to be able to sit all together for dinner, but like a lot of things on her list, a new table and chairs will have to wait.

Copyright 2014 OPB.

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