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Hard times bite deep in Washington: who will step up as the state steps away?

Gov. Chris Gregoire. Credit: Flickr

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."

“What will happen to children who live through years of poverty? Data show that there are long-term effects on kids who fall into poverty even for a short time. … [They will be] less likely to graduate from high school, they’ll earn 30 percent less than peers who didn’t fall into poverty." — Jon Gould of the Children's Alliance

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."

Branch added that “it’s not unusual to see 70 to 80 youth at meals. We’re in Belltown, the most densely populated area of Seattle with the highest crime rate. If we don’t intervene and form a community around these youth, they’re going to be the next offenders.”

The long-term impact on Washington businesses of current family and child poverty could be more dire than many business owners realize. Marilyn Watkins, at the Economic Opportunity Institute, noted that "business prospects have rebounded, corporate CEOs are getting megamillion-dollar salary boosts again, but that hasn’t trickled down." And in the coming years, the effects of poverty rates as serious as today's are likely to trickle up. 

For example, according to the research Gould cited, about 33 percent of children who have not experienced poverty earn a college degree, but only about 13 percent of children who experience poverty do so. Thus, vast numbers of adults who were poor even for a short time as children will be unfit for the 21st-century workforce. That could prove particularly problematic in light of what is known about the educational needs of both employees and firms. In a major job sector survey last year by the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, reported VP of communications Christine Donegan, “80 percent of 1,200 employers in 15 industry sectors said their employees need a bachelor’s degree.” 

Poor children are also more likely than their comparatively fortunate peers to be arrested or incarcerated as they grow older and to develop costly health problems, according to research published by Partnership for America's Economic Success, a national coalition of businesses.

In light of all this, are Washington businesses being strategic enough in collective policy and advocacy efforts regarding what must be done now for families and children experiencing poverty, in order to prevent problems in the future? Such problems will weaken economic prosperity, besides depleting resources for public safety and health, fueling social disorder, and deepening general human misery.

Several interviewees praised Boeing, Microsoft, and the Gates Foundation for working to soften the impact of the recession on vulnerable populations. Mike Buchman, Solid Ground director of communications, said, “They really stepped up in a huge way. If not, our community would have been much harder hit.”

But can and should a much wider range of Washington's business entities agree to step up together in a big way? Resistance to "giving people what they haven't earned or don't deserve" may soften when we remember how we reward and protect the wealthy even when their performance is hardly worth rewarding. Boosting large numbers of people out of poverty can at least benefit society.

Joe Lawless, executive director and founder of the Center for Leadership & Social Responsibility—Milgard School of Business at UW Tacoma, said socially responsible companies contribute philanthropically and support different nonprofits as “an important part of the safety net.” But he said he hasn’t seen "a systemic response" to the recent surge in poverty in Washington. Such responses might conceivably come from business associations, he said.

One, the Washington Roundtable, which has often advocated for stronger educational systems, didn't respond to a request for an interview. But Donegan said the Chamber of Commerce is actively supporting the 2011 Families and Education Levy to “make sure kids are getting…early learning [programs], because kids who start kindergarten behind never catch up.” (Karen Piatt, YMCA of Greater Seattle communications manager, said that since Seattle Public Schools canceled summer sessions, the levy has also been essential for helping students already in school who are struggling to stay at grade level over the summer months.)

Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Businesses described AWB’s nonprofit institute for workforce training and AWB’s support for Western Governors University, which can help women with children earn a low-cost associate degree. “Instead of mom having to go find daycare, she can put the kids down for a nap and study online, and there is tuition assistance,” Brunell said. “It makes education more affordable for poor people. They can become registered nurses, accountants, engineers, or medical techs.”

Can separate strategies like these make a big enough difference in the health of the business sector down the road? If not, would it be prudent for companies to balance time spent on certain policy reforms for the years ahead with more time on lobbying for programs to help citizens living in poverty now, even though this might require increases in government revenue?

The latter idea would, of course, be anathema to many groups focused on market solutions, or convinced that now would be a terrible time to expect anything more from often-struggling businesses and taxpayers. For example, Washington Policy Center has said that defeat of the city's 2011 Families and Education Levy would be a good thing. WPC members advocate for structural reforms that they think will support a new economic reality for business and government in “a time of reset,” said John Barnes, communications director. As regards giving people living in poverty better opportunities to improve their lives, Barnes suggested that “the people who are closest to a problem have the greatest responsibility for solving it. In local communities you’ll see solutions pop up.” In a later email he affirmed his faith in “the varied creative, locally-driven approaches groups and communities across the state might take to help people in genuine need.”

Many disagree that gaps left by budget cuts can be filled in the way the governor and some others hopeby faith communities, private charities, and individuals. Michael Ramos, director of social justice ministries at The Church Council of Greater Seattle, said, “Faith communities cannot pick up the slack if the state takes another $1.4 billion out of funds for services. We need systemic reform.” Relying on sales and property taxes makes the whole system vulnerable. “When those revenues go down [there's] no way to minimize the impact on those who can least afford it.”

Michael Heinisch, executive director of Kent Youth and Family Services, said that if the region wants to have a community where, as the Puget Sound Regional Council envisions, Boeing wants to build planes and where people want to live, we must have, besides a strong private sector, “health care, human services, and housing.” Heinisch said he respects the governor and voted for her “every time she ran,” but “there’s no way that private citizens and faith-based organizations can generate enough philanthropic donations, even with the good heart of the community and the people. I do get the whole notion that the economy may need to be reset. But the role of government is to help people with quality of life, not just Brightwater [wastewater treatment plant], and provide necessary supports for people, not just law enforcement.”

Change is inevitable. Gould observed that “we've seen lots of consolidation in the nonprofit and public sectors, agencies merged to reduce staff needs. Some changes are smart, and will make for better service delivery.” But the energies of both sectors are needed for success. United Way CEO Jon Fine said, “Government is a major player, but so too are nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and individuals who support each other and the nonprofits” — which also depend on public funding to deliver services.

Said Gould, “The public sector has the most resources, the infrastructure, and the responsibility for administering basic programs, food stamps, Medicaid, and children’s insurance. There’s no way, even with increased donations, that nonprofits can fill the gap.”

After all, even the Gates Foundation, arguably the most powerful charitable foundation in the world, lacks enough wealth to meet the challenges posed by poverty in Washington today, said Buchman. “Philanthropic investment and nonprofit energy can’t make up for government.”

For many of those who worry about meeting the challenges, Fontenette put it in a nutshell: “I saw Gov. Gregoire’s speech about how the community needs to step up. But the community doesn’t have any money.”

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