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.
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