Eastern Oregon

Interdependence in Wallowa County


At the northeastern corner of our state, Wallowa County is home to the dramatic Wallowa mountain range, Eagle Cap Wilderness, and Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. Almost 60% of the area is public land and 1 in 4 acres is devoted to agriculture.1 Its landscape of fertile prairies, forests, rugged mountains and canyons creates space for farming, timber, ranching and recreational outdoor tourism.

This frontier county has no traffic lights and fewer than 3 people per square mile, making it one of Oregon’s least populated rural counties at 7,081.2 Before white settlers arrived in 1871, the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce, or wal’wá•ma, lived in the area for thousands of years. In 1877, they were forcibly removed from their homeland (Oregon Secretary of State, 2019). Today, fewer than 10 tribal members live within the county boundaries and the current population is 93% white non-Hispanic.3

Its three largest cities — each in a distinct census tract — are Wallowa, Joseph and the county seat of Enterprise. All three had above-average outcomes for the Opportunity Atlas cohort.Children from lower-income households in the Joseph/Imnaha area and the Wallowa/Troy/Lostine area had some of the highest adult earnings: near the 90th percentile compared to peers across the nation. However, even the areas with the best economic outcomes remain just above the $42,823 needed for basic living and self-sufficiency for a family of four (Pearce, 2017).


Rural areas with strong agricultural or ranching traditions, like Wallowa County, are often known for having close-knit communities and a focus on youth (McKeag et al., 2018; Shamah, 2009). Relationships are a form of wealth, providing opportunities, social support and mutual assistance. As a marker of social capital, the number of membership-based associations in Wallowa County is one of the state’s highest (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2019).

Across economic and racial groups, individuals expressed a strong sense of belonging that, 47 according to one resident, “just feels like you can rely on each other, and that kind of security is hard to find.”

Social support can minimize stress, which hits low-income families especially hard because of the lack of a financial cushion. Visit Wallowa County and you may find a barn fundraiser with $200 bids for an apple pie. Local pie auctions buffer sudden and unexpected financial hardships for families, like medical bills or house fires (Dickenson, 2014). Neighbors help neighbors by blowing snow off a driveway or bringing a meal, and regular donations provide children with shoes or sports equipment. Religion also has a strong presence in this area described as a “faithful place,” creating another layer of social connectivity and support.

Local junior/senior high school teacher and writer Cameron Scott explains, “If I look at the landscape, I can see the structure and support. Part of that landscape is service.” The culture of service is seen as both a benefit and a duty, where “you better stop for your neighbor who had a flat, because they’re going to remember.” For youth, this means laying irrigation pipe, breaking winter ice for the cattle to drink or grudgingly joining a sports team because one more player is needed. One newer resident reflected on local expectations, asking, “Are you willing to bring what you’ve got to the community?”

Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center

Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center

Through their efforts to preserve history and culture, communities of color are also building and deepening social ties in the county. For example, the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center highlights the role of African American loggers in the county during the 1920s and 1930s.

Executive Director Gwen Trice is the daughter of a Maxville logger who loved hunting and fishing, and she hopes the Center can serve as a place where “people of color [can] be connected to each other and to the land.” Similarly, the Nez Perce Wallowa Homeland now maintains 320 acres and hosts annual celebrations with a mission to “enhance and enrich relationships” between indigenous people and current residents. It’s a place-based connection. “The growing tolerance gives voice to us all,” Gwen summarizes.

“Our elders, whose bones remain in this beautiful land, would be proud that everyone here has a genuine concern to maintain the NeeMe-Poo [We The People, Nez Perce] culture. It has fallen upon the shoulders of this generation to capture the history and, through cultural understanding, respect this land that we live in.”



With social capital, an individual’s status in the community is often strongly linked to family history, reputation and alignment with community values. Sara Miller moved to the county about 40 years ago. “In a small community, it’s all about the history of people’s families,” she observes. “You have to be careful because it affects how your kids are treated, job opportunities, et cetera.”

Parental substance use, mental illness and longterm unemployment can erode generational respect for a family. Children still receive wraparound care and donations from the community, but nevertheless, they may feel the shadow on their family name. While Wallowa County folks proudly look out for one another’s immediate needs, whether a parent is considered “deserving” will impact their children’s long-term opportunities. “For youth who do not quite fit and perceive their family to have a reputation, developing a sense of purpose appears to be abandoned for the work necessary to maintain their roles within peer and community contexts” (Shamah, 2009).

Mental and behavioral health is one area with gaps in community support and understanding, but organizations are pushing for improvements. The local community health assessment found that stigma is discouraging people from accessing health care services (Eastern Oregon Coordinated Care Organization, 2019). Wallowa County has one of the best hospitals in Oregon and more primary care physicians than the state average, but just half the mental health professionals (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2019). It also has the state’s third-highest suicide rate (Oregon Health Authority, 2018).

Wallowa Valley Center for Wellness (WVCW) and Winding Waters Community Health Center are partners in developing an integrated health care facility that will make it easier to access mental health services without the stigma. The relationship between WVCW and Winding Waters helped create the vision for this facility. Nonprofits like Winding Waters are piecing together resources ranging from assistance with medical bills and housing to referrals for after-school programming, which helps to decouple health care needs from community approval.

People who identify as LGBTQ+ are also less likely to access community support, even if they have broad connections and deep generational roots. Kyrie Weaver’s family has been in the county for generations, and she works for an anti-domestic and sexual violence agency. From her perspective, “even though there are respected people, the general rule is that LGBTQ equals other, and that ‘we don’t have those kind here.’ Local statistics show that [they/we] exist.”

More than 50 county residents attend events for those considering themselves queer or out, not including allies and friends. Based on national data, 5% of adults and 10% of youth identify as LGBT and these numbers are often underestimated in rural areas (Movement Advancement Project, 2019). Without recognition, LGBTQ+ individuals lack the benefits of community safety and security.

“I think being able to express yourself in the arts, through language arts, is really important to being able to figure out what your path is and help you understand yourself and the decisions you’ll make.”



Overall, children and youth are a visible and central part of the community. About 80% of high school students work for pay, and 69% participate in school sports (Shamah, 2009), which links them to a broader network of adults. Sliding scale extracurriculars complement the four-day school week with established opportunities through 4-H, Future Farmers of America, and Family, Career and Community Leaders of America. Newer offerings in music, drama, writing and outdoor science adventures provide additional connection points.

At Joseph Charter School, students can intern with a plumber or attend culinary, drama, ceramics, woodworking, dance or glassblowing classes taught by volunteers. Even the local paper has an athlete and student of the week, which helps a broader group of children to feel valued and integral.

Joseph Charter School outing

Joseph Charter School outing

Funding for schools in rural counties formerly dependent on timber has changed drastically since the 1990s when the OI cohort was in school. State ballot initiatives limited school funding statewide. In Wallowa County, this led to teacher layoffs, decreased electives and a reduced school week of just four days.

Enterprise established an educational foundation to protect art, music, agriculture and home economics electives. In years where the classes were exceptionally large, parents coordinated to raise funds for an additional teacher. School funding has since stabilized: An average class is 15 students, compared with an average of 25 in Oregon.5 Wallowa is now among the top five counties in terms of per-student spending.6

Using traditional measures of academic achievement, Wallowa County high schools are preparing students of all incomes well. With only one school option in each of its three districts (Enterprise, Joseph and Wallowa), the county has the highest four-year cohort graduation rate in Oregon (95%). It is also one of only two counties in the state where more than 90% of economically disadvantaged youth graduate in four years.7 An alternative high school option, run by the nonprofit Building Healthy Families, gives each student internship experience and a post-high school action plan.

The high graduation rate is even more unusual in a county where almost half of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.8

Joseph Charter School (K-12) prepares students for a range of local careers, not just college. With increasing automation in farming and ranching, more living-wage jobs require higher education. Superintendent Lance Homan considers, “For those who are staying in the county after graduation and entering the workforce, what do they need? The high-wage, high-demand jobs don’t always require a lot of education. We’re trying to give kids the transferable skills they need so they’re employable.” To help achieve that goal, the school recently acquired a flight simulator and offers programs in aeronautics, business and marketing.

Educators are also building subtle, underlying skills among students by encouraging student voice, artistic expression and risk-taking for low-income students. At Wallowa Jr./Sr. High School, Cameron Scott has a passion for student voice and storytelling, challenging students to communicate well, express their needs and learn about themselves in the process. Much of this work is built on trusting relationships. For both the brain and overall health, long-term impacts of family stress are minimized when “protective adult relationships facilitate the child’s adaptive coping and sense of control” (Shonkoff & Garner, 2012).

As another teacher notes, “If you’re living day to day, you’re not as likely to take the risks and try new things. We promote our programs as valuable and safe.” Youth-adult relationships add another layer of safety and support, contributing to healthy youth development.

Although its high school graduation rates are outstanding, Wallowa County struggles to provide viable economic opportunities for young adults. As Lindsay Miller, an educator at Wallowa Resources, acknowledges, “We’re good at getting them graduated but not that next step. That’s what I want to see grow. …We’re trying to create a mentored training ground where kids get paid.”

In Wallowa County, 1 in 4 residents have college degrees. This may seem low, but in most U.S. counties, only 19% finish college.9 The concern is whether they can stay in Wallowa County and earn enough to support a family.

“It’s harder for kids to fall through the cracks here. I get feedback from kids all the time that it’s good and bad. There’s no anonymity, and the sense of community responsibility can be hard. Whether you want it or not, there are 10 grandmas looking out for you.”



The community narrative is that those who can, leave, and those who stay lack decent living-wage jobs. Two in 3 children born in Wallowa County between 1978 and 1983 no longer live in the area. The numbers are similar for children from low income households (59%).10

On average, people raised in low-income households are earning about $40,000 annually.11 For those who stayed in the county, the median household income is $34,000, which still qualifies as low-income but is at the 75th percentile nationally.12

A household with two adults and two children earning $34,000 a year may not feel like a success story, especially when estimates show that a Wallowa County family of this size needs $42,823 to be self-sufficient (Pearce, 2017). College debt and swiftly mounting property costs make that number feel even smaller.

Anne Stephens moved to Wallowa County as an adult. “A big issue here is jobs,” she says. “There are a lot of low-income jobs here, but those aren’t living wages. People have three jobs. … And when kids graduate, they almost all have to leave to support a family.” Average pay in Wallowa County is $700 per week, just 69% of the state average13 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018).

Until the decline in the 1990s, timber mills were an economic cornerstone and a source of living-wage jobs that did not require a college degree. Arts and health care sectors have since expanded with new bronze foundries and a $23 million critical access hospital built in 2007 — the same year the last big mill closed.

“We’ve gone from a sense of despair and complacency to one of greater optimism and ambition,” Nils Christoffersen from Wallowa Resources comments. Most Wallowa County jobs are in the health care sector, followed by retail, public 52 administration, accommodation/food service, and construction.14

Over the past 30 years, household incomes have largely recovered from the devastating effects of mill closures. In 1990, median household income was $39,000 (the 36th percentile among counties nationally).15 Recent census data shows that median household income has risen to $43,000, which puts the region back at the 37th percentile.16 Part of this recovery is due to wealthier new residents, telecommuter earnings, and retirement income rather than local jobs. Wallowa ranked 29th among Oregon counties in terms of per capita personal income categorized as wages/earnings, and it ranked fourth for per capita income from interest/ dividends/rent.

While county wages remain low compared to the state average, the regional economic plan coordinated by the Northeast Oregon Economic Development District (NEOEDD) aims to build on strengths to increase wages and diversify the economies in Baker, Union and Wallowa counties. Average annual wages are slowly rising across sectors, especially in construction, health care and education (Oregon Employment Department, 2018).

The plan for 2018–2023 was informed by voices across sectors and is focused on creating more family-wage jobs by encouraging entrepreneurs and small businesses, regenerative agriculture, forest and watershed stewardship, and outdoor recreation. Other goals include creating more community spaces and exposing youth to local career opportunities and counseling.

Child care shortages prevent parents from finding and keeping jobs and, on a larger scale, hinder business growth. In a county where 43% of parents are single parents — the second-highest rate in Oregon — this type of infrastructure is essential for parents to work.17 Demand for the Head Start preschool program is often double the number of spots available, and some of the in-home child care options have shut down because they did not meet state legal requirements.

In 2019, the local Community Advisory Council approved almost $10,000 of community funds for child care scholarships. Still, the annual cost for a toddler in a child care center is $7,800 (Pratt, 2018). Lacking child care, parents draw on their networks of informal support. Preschoolers may come to the office for a few days or sit at a corner booth in the family restaurant. Child care solutions are discussed and dealt with informally, without systemic solutions that would require greater investment (likely from outside the community).


For those trying to improve the economy, “there’s a serious housing shortage that’s a barrier to job expansion and start-up,” which affects long-time residents and newcomers. The regional economic development plan highlights the challenge for local workers in a county where almost 20% of homes are classified “for seasonal use” (NEOEDD, 2018).

Rural areas with tourism, like Wallowa County, also face challenges of gentrification often associated with more urban areas. A key difference between “revitalization” and “gentrification” is the displacement of low-income households (Kennedy & Leonard, 2001).

Concerns about the quality, availability and affordability of housing surfaced in local interviews, in part because of the desirability of the area. Kyrie Weaver grew up in Wallowa County, left for college and came back to work. She notes that “Portland folks are coming with bigger budgets and buying the houses; I don’t see myself able to afford a house anytime soon.”

Almost half of Wallowa County renters are considered “rent-burdened” and are spending 30% or more of their income on housing.18 In 2019, an opportunity to fund and build more low-income housing in Joseph stalled because of lack of agreement on the location. Housing insecurity and homelessness are largely considered individual rather than community problems, even as the issue affects more new and seasoned county residents.


Increases in tourism, second-home ownership, retirees moving to the area, and a growing art industry are shifting the culture and demographics of the community. Such changes offer new opportunities for economic development in arts, tourism and telecommuting, which could ultimately support job opportunities for youth. Main Street businesses and families also benefit from the dollars spent by tourists and retirees locally. At the same time, there is hesitation about what this means for the community and whether generational ranches will transition to vacation homes, hunting properties or golf courses with an increasing supply of low-wage tourism jobs and home prices unaffordable for young families with county roots. Amidst these changes, the culture of service and strong network of relationships provide a web of support for low-income community member and opportunity for Wallowa County children.

This story is one part of our 2020 TOP Report, “Cornerstones: Economic Mobility and Belonging in Oregon” part of series of six reports tracking economic, social and environmental progress in Oregon. View the full report.


  1. U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2017). Census of agriculture: 2017 census volume 1, chapter 2: County level data, table 8. 
  2. U.S. Census Bureau. (2018). QuickFacts: Wallowa County, Oregon. 
  3. Opportunity Insights (OI) & U.S. Census Bureau. (2019). Tract 41063960200, Wallowa, OR; Tract 41063960300, Enterprise, OR; Tract 41063960100, Joseph, OR: Outcomes: Household income. The Opportunity Atlas. 
  4. Oregon Department of Education (ODE). (2020, January 23). Cohort graduation rate 2018–2019 media file. 
  5. ODE. (2019). At-a-glance profiles and accountability details: Operating expenses per student 2017–2018, by district. 
  6. ODE. (2020, January 23). Cohort graduation rate 2018–2019 media file. 
  7. ODE. (2019). Oregon statewide report card 2018–2019.
  8. OI & U.S. Census Bureau. (2019). Wallowa County, OR: Neighborhood characteristics: Fraction college graduates in 2012– 16. The Opportunity Atlas
  9. OI & U.S. Census Bureau. (2019). Wallowa County, OR: Outcomes: % staying in same commuting zone as adults. The Opportunity Atlas. 
  10. OI & U.S. Census Bureau. (2019). Wallowa County, OR: Outcomes: Household income. The Opportunity Atlas
  11. OI & U.S. Census Bureau. (2019). Wallowa County, OR: Outcomes: Household income (stayed in commuting zone). The Opportunity Atlas. 
  12. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2019). Quarterly census of employment and wages (QCEW), all covered industries, 2018. 
  13. U.S. Census Bureau, Longitudinal-Employer Household Dynamics Program. (2019). LEHD Origin-destination employment statistics data (2017). 
  14. OI & U.S. Census Bureau. (2019). Wallowa County, OR: Neighborhood characteristics: Median hhold. income of residents in 1990. The Opportunity Atlas. 
  15. OI & U.S. Census Bureau. (2019). Wallowa County, OR: Neighborhood characteristics: Median household income of residents in 2012–2016. The Opportunity Atlas. 
  16. OI & U.S. Census Bureau. Wallowa County, OR: Neighborhood characteristics: Fraction single parents in 2012–2016. The Opportunity Atlas. 
  17. U.S. Census Bureau. (2019, December 13). American Community Survey 5-year estimates: Table DP04, selected housing characteristics.