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Report says 1 in 3 Washington households struggle to afford basic life necessities

Heather Freeman, left, and Nancy Hadley fill several clients’ orders during the weekly distribution day Wednesday at the YWCA’s Other Bank in downtown Olympia. The program provides essential hygiene and cleaning items that can’t be purchased with food stamps and currently serves around 125 families a week.
Heather Freeman, left, and Nancy Hadley fill several clients’ orders during the weekly distribution day Wednesday at the YWCA’s Other Bank in downtown Olympia. The program provides essential hygiene and cleaning items that can’t be purchased with food stamps and currently serves around 125 families a week. sbloom@theolympian.com

The United Way has released a comprehensive report with data on Pacific Northwest households that earn more than the federal poverty level, but still struggle to afford basic necessities such as housing and child care.

The nonprofit organization refers to these households as ALICE, which stands for “asset limited, income constrained, employed.”

Organizers say the report, part of a national project, will become a tool that influences public policy and inspires strategies for helping families meet their needs.

The project collected 2013 data for every county in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The number of struggling households was determined based on an area’s wages and cost of living.

 

Incomes for these residents were low enough that a single incident — such as a broken-down vehicle or lengthy illness — could trigger a household crisis.

“When you don’t have the opportunity to earn more money, that cost of living and affording that basic household budget is tougher,” said Stephanie Hoopes, lead researcher and national director for the project.

“There’s a real mismatch in much of the region where there’s expensive housing but not a lot of job opportunities, and where there are job opportunities, you can’t afford the housing.”

Policy recommendations were excluded from the release of data to avoid politicizing the project’s results, Hoopes said.

“We want everyone to use the data as a starting point for a better understanding of what’s going on,” she said. “Once you put a policy proposal on one side of the aisle, everybody on the other side doesn’t read the rest of the report.”

The United Way reported that 13 percent of Washington households were living in poverty in 2013, while 19 percent qualified as struggling households, for a total of 32 percent of households below the “ALICE threshold.”

The South Sound hovers close to the statewide average.

In Thurston County, 12 percent live below the poverty line and another 23 percent qualify as struggling.

In Pierce County, the combined total is 34 percent, with 12 percent of households below the poverty line and another 22 percent falling short of the basic costs of living.

Analysts once referred to the latter figure as “the working poor,” but United Way officials said they now avoid using the term because of its political baggage.

“We’re trying to get away from that language because it has sort of a negative connotation to it,” said Molly Rennie, associate director for the national survey project. “We were trying to create a language around really hard-working Americans who deserve respect and deserve help.”

As a state, Washington has the lowest percentage of struggling households of any the United Way has studied so far. The Pacific Northwest report shows Idaho at 37 percent and Oregon at 38 percent of households below the threshold.

A six-state report in 2014 found that in California, 46 percent of households were below the threshold, while in Florida, 45 percent qualified. Rounding out the list were Michigan (40 percent), New Jersey (38 percent), Indiana (37 percent) and Connecticut (35 percent).

Reports will be released later this year for Iowa and Louisiana.

Washington counties with the highest percentage of households below the threshold are east of the Cascades: Whitman (52 percent), Ferry (49 percent), Adams (47 percent), Yakima (46 percent) and Walla Walla (45 percent).

Counties with the lowest percentage were Kitsap (23 percent), King (25 percent), Benton (30 percent) and Garfield (30 percent).

A CLOSER LOOK AT THURSTON COUNTY

 

Thurston County ranks near the bottom in the state for housing affordability, with an average monthly rent of $963 for a family of four.

The state government’s role as an economic anchor and employer may have kept the county’s poverty rates from going higher. However, the rising cost of real estate and income inequality are key reasons why 1 in 3 local households still struggle financially, said Paul Knox, CEO of the United Way of Thurston County.

“This is a wake-up call,” Knox said of the United Way project’s findings. “We need to double down on our efforts.”

The costs of housing, child care, transportation and taxes in Thurston County also are slightly above the state average.

In fact, housing and child care are the top two expenses for households, according to the United Way report. Thurston County’s average combined cost of housing and child care is $2,230 a month, which is nearly half of the monthly budget needed to support a family with two adults, one preschooler and one infant.

“If you don’t have any kind of subsidy, it’s really challenging to pay the bill,” Knox said. “It’s a big challenge. People want to work and they need to work, but the cost of child care is a disincentive and pretty painful for people to pay.”

PUTTING A FACE ON THE SITUATION

In Ivey Soto’s case, an affordable apartment changed everything. About five years ago, she was trying to escape an abusive relationship while juggling two low-wage jobs and raising a daughter.

“When you’re a single parent and you don’t get much money in, you go for what you can,” said Soto, 38. “Half the time, you were lucky if you could afford groceries. I would feed my kid first and whatever was leftover, that’s what I would eat.”

She found housing assistance from local nonprofit Homes First, which connected her with a subsidized apartment in Olympia.

With her housing covered, Soto was able to move out of a $500-a-month trailer and quit her second job working the graveyard shift at a convenience store. With her one daytime job at a grocery store deli, she no longer needed in-home child care at night.

“At the time, I was lucky to even get four hours of sleep a day if I could,” she said, noting how she chugged energy drinks to stay awake. “I was killing myself just trying to stay afloat.”

The physical and mental stress from supporting her family ended up taking a toll on Soto’s health. She developed severe tendonitis after all those long hours on her feet and at one point suffered respiratory failure.

Today, these ailments leave her unable to work, although she is able to be home with her daughter, Charlize, who is now 8.

Despite health issues and limited income, Soto said her quality of life has drastically improved because of stable housing. With assistance, her rent is $19 a month.

“It was nice to have a place where I didn’t have to worry about that anymore,” she said. “I look back at it now, and I don’t know how the heck I did it.”

Thurston County has an active social service sector that consistently works to connect low-income families with housing, training, employment, benefits and necessities.

Every Wednesday afternoon, more than 100 people line up outside the Olympia YWCA’s little red warehouse known as The Other Bank.

Inside, they find help without judgment.

Up to eight times a year, people can pick up essential hygiene supplies, including toilet paper and diapers. The latter is a major expense for Olympia single mother Germie Pouncy, who visited The Other Bank last week with 3-month-old Ellianna cooing on her lap.

About 21 percent of the program’s clients are employed, with jobs ranging from minimum wage to positions in state government. Pouncy, 32, works part-time at an electronics retail outlet and relies on subsidized child care for her baby and 5-year-old son.

The arrangement gives Pouncy more time with her two children, but it comes at a cost. Like other families in similar circumstances, the end of the month is lean as her money runs out. She credits strong social services in Olympia, along with family and church, for helping her make ends meet.

“You have to be able to pay the bills,” she said.

For Heather Freeman, the healing began last year with a phone call to her mother. At the time, Freeman was homeless and battling an addiction. The single mother of two boys, ages 5 and 1, had been finding shelter wherever there was an open couch.

Now, Freeman has been clean and sober for nine months. She recently completed the YWCA’s Economic Empowerment Program and now works at The Other Bank.

“This has been the best part of my life,” said Freeman, 30. “It’s just really opened my eyes.”

“There were times when I slept outside with the kids, just to get by,” she said.

Today, Freeman lives with her mother in Olympia and looks forward to going to work in a place where she can empathize with other parents struggling to survive.

Although she has removed several obstacles in her life, a few still remain, such as reliable transportation. Freeman depends on public transit, which has its shortcomings as a sole means of getting around.

“It takes so long to get from point A to point B,” she said of riding the bus. “Once in a while, I’d like to have the luxury of driving a vehicle.”

News Tribune staff writer Derrick Nunnally contributed to this report.

Andy Hobbs: 360-704-6869, @andyhobbs

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