About 890,000 Washingtonians live in poverty, according to data collected for 2010 by the U.S. Census Bureau and released earlier this month. That's 13.4 percent of the state's population. Almost half a million live in deep poverty, earning less than $12,000 a year for a family of four. About 300,000 children, or nearly one in five of Washington’s kids under 18, lived in poor families in 2010, and tens of thousands more are swelling the bleak statistics now.
At the same time, Gov. Chris Gregoire is asking for up to $2 billion in new budget cuts, and funding for public services faces a freshly sharpened ax. A June editorial in the Olympian quoted Gregoire as saying, “It’s going to be up to communities and their residents to get us through these terrible financial times. That’s how we did it in the Depression. People helped their fellow human beings.” The editor added, “we need faith communities, nonprofits, and individuals to step up.”
Can these entities make enough of a difference? That's a question answered in a variety of ways by the various leaders and experts interviewed for this story. A number of them see it, in part, as a question that also ought to be turned back on elected leaders. Laurie Pfingst, of Washington State Budget and Policy Center, sees "seriously diminished quality in the education provided for our children, public safety, the affordability of higher education — all has been cut so severely, we’re really threatening the future of our state in the long run. The waiting list for basic health is now 150,000 individuals waiting for access to health care, at a time when employers are cutting health care. We need a balanced approach. It is unconscionable that we ask lower- and moderate-income people to shoulder the burden. We need to discuss ways of increasing revenue.”
Growing pressure on the region’s social services is one indicator of the size of the burden borne by people with the least power to change the situation. Nearly every service provider quoted in this article cited surges in the requests they receive for help, both in numbers of applicants and in types of need.
At Salvation Army Eastside in Bellevue, requests have doubled, said Salvation Army Lt. Darryck Dwelle. “We are having to turn away, conservatively, 2,000 people a year asking for rent or electricity assistance.” In an email Kelly Bray, communications manager for Children’s Home Society of Washington, wrote, "Families come to us with shut-off notices from the utilities company," and debate whether they can afford to take a sick father to the emergenc room. “Five years ago we heard stories like this every so often. Now we hear [them] every day,” she wrote.
Crisis Clinic executive director Kathleen Southwick reported that calls to the 2-1-1 crisis line for help with basic needs rose from 109,000 in 2006 to 185,000 in 2010. Katherin Johnson, manager of Housing and Human Services for the city of Kent, said, “We used to handle maybe 400 calls per month, and now it's maybe 2,000.” She sees a sharp increase in the need for utility assistance. “They just can’t pay their utility bill. Then they run into late charges, turnoff fees, reconnection fees — a manageable bill becomes totally unmanageable, so how can they get [the power] back on?”
Deadbeats aren’t driving the increase in demand. These people want to work, according to those who are in touch with the increasing populations seeking services. Matt King, YWCA Greater Seattle director of employment services, reported seeing 5,500 job-seekers last year, vs. 3,500 in 2007. He said it’s harder for blue-collar workers to find jobs because more unemployed white-collar workers are now applying for the same ones, and employment classes where people might retrain for new kinds of work are full.
Not surprisingly, agencies trying to house homeless people are swamped with applicants. Multi-Service Center’s chief operations officer Robin Corak routinely has to put families with children on a long waiting list for shelter. Christy Becker, collaborative manager at Hopelink, said that by the end of August 2011 they had turned away 1,020 different families applying for housing.
The “new poor” are swelling the numbers of the hard-pressed. Greg Fontenette, at the Salvation Army in Kitsap, reported that the many disabled people they used to serve are now joined by what he called the surviving poor. Many of them work, but for such low wages they can’t cover rent, utilities, and food. And for the newly unemployed, King said, "it's demoralizing. People get their sense of identity through their work." Unemployment and sudden poverty are "damaging to their sense of self."
Bray described newly poor families as “desperate and confused — many don’t know what to ask for since they’ve never been in this situation.” Corak agreed: “It’s overwhelming for them. They’ve worked for years, but were laid off. It’s very difficult for them to find themselves on the other side of the counter” of the food bank where they used to volunteer.
Jon Gould, Children's Alliance deputy director, said, “Plenty of families that are seeking services used to be self-sufficient” but now can't meet basic needs. These families “are going to extraordinary lengths to take care of their kids, going without food so the kids can eat, or taking in kids whose families couldn’t feed them.”
“What will happen to children who live through years of poverty?” Gould asked, and answered the question: “Data show that there are long-term effects on kids who fall into poverty even for a short time.” Temporary poverty induced by the recession will make children “less likely to graduate from high school, they’ll earn 30 percent less than peers who didn’t fall into poverty, and the consequences affect all of us: the productivity of the future workforce and the future prosperity of the region and nation. Those who think people need to just toughen up and suffer the consequences need to realize that there will be negative consequences for all of us, for generations to come,” he said.
Southwick, too, dreads the impact of poverty on kids. “Half the 2-1-1 calls are from families with children. There’s not enough food, there’s instability because they’re couch-surfing or living with relatives, and there have been reductions in subsidies for child-care resources. Those are going to be long-term effects. Not investing in children means that kids aren’t ready to learn in school, a higher proportion of dropouts later on, kids won’t be able to find a job later and maintain their families — a downward spiral.”
Jim Branch, director of development and community relations at New Horizons Ministries, said, “Where in the past many youth were able to stay in their foster homes after the age of 18, more now are being dropped off in the streets, with their foster parents saying, ‘We’re not paid to take care of you any longer. You’re on your own.’ The number of youth in our drop-in center has increased over 100 percent."
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