Behind the million-dollar homes and celebrity residents of the San Juan Islands, other citizens struggle to make ends meet.
A goal adopted by the Washington Department of Social and Health Services in 2016 aims to reduce the state poverty rate by 50 percent by 2025. As a way of achieving this objective, DSHS employees are hosting forums across Washington to learn about the unique circumstances influencing regional economic hardship.
“We’re going to gather all of this information and this is directly fed back to our executive leadership,” said Spring Benson, Orcas forum facilitator and DSHS representative. “Also, we have a direct link to the governor’s task force. So, the governor has created a poverty reduction task force and part of that is coming up with a 10-year strategic plan of what that will look like. … So this information is directly fed back into that.”
Nearly 20 people gathered at Emmanual Episcopal Church Hall on Wednesday, Nov. 7, for a “listening forum” hosted by DSHS — one of three held in the islands. Community representatives like County Councilman Rick Hughes, Orcas Island School District Superintendent Eric Webb and Public Hospital District Commissioner and OPAL Land Trust board member Pegi Groundwater were in attendance.
Low wages and a high cost of living are an epidemic across the state of Washington, but attendees at the forums explained that those problems are exacerbated in San Juan County. According to data from the University of Washington, San Juan has the fifth-highest annual cost of living for a family of three out of the state’s 39 counties.
Nearly one in three Washingtonians use services provided by DSHS, including assistance for food, child support and employment transition services.
Lori Pfingst, chief of programs and policies with the community services division of DSHS, told the San Juan forum that the organization is looking to cut the state’s poverty in half within the next six years. According to the University of Washington, about 11 percent of residents lived in poverty as of 2016. The federal poverty level for a family of three, at that time, was an annual income of $20,160.
To lower poverty, Pfingst said, DSHS needs targeted solutions for the varied populations served by the department — from the single mother in an urban city to the working families of rural areas like the San Juans.
For instance, for every $100 raised in rent across Washington state, Pfingst said the department sees a 6 percent increase in homelessness in urban areas but a 33 percent increase in rural regions.
“We bring [information] back to our leadership, and we make recommendations based on what we hear,” she said. “One blanket solution isn’t going to work for everyone.”
San Juan is the 12th county in Washington that department staff have visited since June 2017. DSHS plans to return to work with locals to implement ideas.
At the San Juan forum, Greg Winter, executive director of regional housing nonprofit the Opportunity Council, recommended state and federal investments support affordable rentals with the same necessity as roads and bridges.
“To me, it helps to think of affordable rental housing as infrastructure, the same way we think of our roads, bridges [and] water systems,” Winter said. “Affordable rental housing provides those same services of commerce, economic development and health and safety.”
On Orcas, OPAL Land Trust has provided 106 affordable houses for purchase and 30 rental units to low-income residents. Its active project, April’s Grove, will break ground in spring and provide an additional 45 rental units for low- and middle-income residents.
Currently, however, there are no rentals regularly available on the island at any given time. Participants noted that this worries residents as they have the potential to lose their job and social circle if they lose their housing because they have nowhere to move.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, San Juan County is the 10th in the nation for income disparity. In 2013, the top 1 percent of earners made $3,078,877 compared to the $44,728 of the bottom 99 percent.
Many forum participants said that there are many jobs available in San Juan County, but the majority are low-pay jobs or seasonal – only May to November. There are also under-the-table jobs where employees are paid $30 an hour or so, but there are no benefits such as health or retirement.
“You’re seeing these people stuck in [low-paying service jobs] not really getting the STEM jobs, not really having access to the training that it takes to get the STEM jobs,” said Vala Ross, assistant director of Kaleidoscope Preschool and Child Care Center. “If they want to take online classes, they’re not getting access to affordable child care, that’s not going to work for school.”
Ross noted that many of the Kaleidoscope children’s care is subsidized and that all of the local child care facilities are at capacity – local poverty levels highly impact both of these. Kaleidoscope’s child care fees range from $6-8 an hour for infants through preschool-age, which is more than 50 percent of what minimum wage pays per hour.
“Eighty percent of my clientele is subsidized. That is disproportionate to the data that’s represented statewide,” Ross said.
Poverty is most prevalent in the ages of 18 to 24 with statewide data indicating that 45 percent of people in this age range are living below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. In turn, these are the people who are in need of child care services.
“These are the parents of those infants and toddlers. That’s why, maybe you’re seeing 41 percent of these infants and toddlers being in poverty, directly appropriate to 45 percent of their parents being in poverty,” Ross said. “That transition to adulthood, the lack of access to higher education here, service work becomes the norm as opposed to skills-based industry.”
Hayley Day contributed to this article.