Overstuffed and underfed: A holiday tale on the rock

As I think about all the great food and drink I consumed over the holidays, all the loved ones I hugged and all the goodies I got but didn’t need, I’m not feeling the least bit deprived, short-changed or left out. But it has made me consider those on our Rock who are.

Poverty on Whidbey Island looks different than it does elsewhere. No poor souls sleep under freeway overpasses or next to railroad tracks; there are no freeways or railroads here. No long lines form on a cold night hoping for a spot in a warm shelter; we don’t have any. We see only an occasional panhandler; our law enforcement folks do a good job of shooing them away.

Poverty isn’t in our faces here the way it is in America. Instead, it’s hidden just out of view. In that ramshackle house in the woods, that ancient RV or travel trailer on an empty lot, or that beat-up car occupied by somebody and their world goods parked off the main road. Even more hidden is that lovely family next door with a single mother who works two part-time jobs and tries not to show the food stamps she uses in the checkout line.

I spent some time delving into recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Island County Economic Development Council, and what I found tells me that poverty not only looks different on the Rock, in some ways it is quite different.

To be sure, we have homeless people here, and that situation grows worse by the day as rents soar and the housing shortage reaches a crisis stage. But what the data really show is that poverty on the Rock has more to do with the low-wage jobs available here, especially for women.

About 8.4 percent of all families in Island County live below the poverty line — which was established as annual income of $24,250 for a family of four in 2015. But that number rises to a staggering 46 percent for families with children under 18 headed by a single woman. The comparable number for families with children headed by a man or a couple is 14 percent.

Poverty on the Rock is also mostly an issue for younger people. About 14 percent of those under 18 here live in poverty, as do just over 10 percent of those age 18 to 64. Older people are much less affected. Only 4 percent of those 65 and older live in poverty.

Why is this so? Our island economy has recovered from the Great Recession, and unemployment is down. But wages have not recovered. In fact, in a number of key job areas here, average weekly wages are actually lower now than three years ago— retail, wholesale, construction and food among them. In no small measure, that’s due to the fact that many jobs in those areas have become part-time.

What all this tells me is that most folks who live in poverty on our beautiful Rock actually have a job — many have several — and a place to live, but they aren’t quite making ends meet. Whidbey used to be desirable because it was affordable, a place where a relatively small income was enough to live decently. But that seems to be changing.

To be sure, the majority of us are still doing just fine with our full-time jobs or our pensions. Our life on the Rock remains as blissful as ever. But as we head out to pedal the elliptical machine at the gym or attend a Weight Watchers meeting to work off some extra holiday pounds, let’s remember the heavy weight carried by those among us living in poverty — then let’s do something about it.

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