UW study says 2 in 5 kids are in need

Kids Count report says island incomes are stagnating as child care costs rise

  • Wednesday, November 24, 1999 12:00pm
  • News

“Mom and Dad were working full-time minimum wage jobs in Oak Harbor while their two little girls were in day care.Like any of the so-called working poor, they were working without any kind of safety net and were one crisis away from homelessness and financial collapse.And it happened. The baby got sick and Mom had to take her, by bus, to a Seattle hospital. A local retail store fired her because she missed several days of work.Lisa Scheerer of the Opportunity Council said the agency did what they could to help the family by providing temporary emergency housing, but it wasn’t enough. The family made just enough that they didn’t qualify for help from the state.So Mom and Dad packed up their babies and moved to another state, where family members could help them with day care.This is not meant to make you feel guilty as you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner.But it is something to chew on.More than 40 percent of children in the North Sound region live in households with “inadequate income,” according to a new report from the Washington Kids Count project.That’s two out of every five children you see waiting for the school bus, walking down the street or sitting in the doctor’s office.In Island County specifically, the study says that average annual wages are decreasing — or stagnating at best — while the cost of child care is increasing. The county is one of the few places in the state where the number of teenage pregnancies is increasing. The average annual wage in Island County was $21,185 in 1997, which was down from the year before. The average wage in the state in 1997 was $30,755.For people who work with the low income on North Whidbey, the statistics are easy to believe.Bill Nance at the Help House said he sees a large and growing gap between the poor and the affluent on North Whidbey. “It’s weird,” he said. “We have a booming economy and more families than ever need help.”He said the Help House saw a big increase in families needing assistance since the 1997 welfare reform greatly enlarged the working poor class. Last year, the Help House had provided food baskets to the families of 1,386 children. Charity groups that help the poor, he said, are needed now more than ever.Gretta Kaas-Lent, the administrator of the Department of Social and Health Service’s Community Service Office in Oak Harbor, said that Whidbey Island has one of the highest percentages of working clients in the state. Which means that people have work, but the wages simply aren’t liveable.Lisa Clark of the Opportunity Council said a lot of families with children come through her doors. Many of them are part of a new class — the working homeless. “Our emergency shelters are always full,” she said.Clark said poverty, and especially homelessness, can have a negative effect on children, who thrive on stability. Marietta Wiener, the principal of Clover Valley Elementary School, said that poor children, especially hungry children, have obstacles to learning. Since the school district doesn’t have a hot lunch program, she said the school relies on local groups for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to feed kids without lunches.“It’s harder to learn if they’re not exactly sure where they are going to live,” she said, “or if there’s going to be enough food when they come home.”Robin Hertlein, executive director of the Child Abuse Prevention Foundation of Whidbey Island, said that her group looks at poverty as a root cause of child abuse and neglect.“Poverty causes stress, and stress leads to abuse,” she said. Richard Brandon, the director of the Washington Kids Count project, said that many communities throughout the state have the same economic problems as Whidbey. In fact, he said most of the state’s wealth is centered in King County, but it dwindles as you get farther away.Yet the problem in Island County is worsened by the high cost of living, partly caused by the close proximity of Seattle. Houses and day care costs on Whidbey, for example, are similar to Seattle, but the wages are much less.To determine the number of families that live without adequate income, Brandon said the group analyzed a very bare-bones family budget. Taking day care costs into account, he said families in Washington need about twice the federal poverty level to afford just the necessities.In fact, he said the federal government itself used 200 percent of the federal poverty level in defining “poverty” for Medicare, earned income credit and many other programs.The federal poverty level for a family of three is $13,000 a year. “

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