When is a family poor? When it can't afford a car? When there isn't enough money to buy new jeans and shoes? When mom goes without food so the children can eat? Though many agree that poverty is a reality in Spokane, few agree as how to actually measure it. Federal standards and state standards differ, and many social workers say that the federal poverty level is set too low anyway -- that it's simply impossible to exist on that amount of money no matter where you live.
Every year, the Spokane Regional Health District takes on a major assessment study, and this year it's poverty's turn. The yearlong assessment project will be kicked off at a public meeting next Thursday. At the meeting, several poverty indicators will be presented and then compared to a model of what it actually costs for a family of four to live in Spokane County.
"We've been looking at poverty for some time as an area that we need a better understanding of," says Dr. Kim Thorburn, the health officer for the Spokane Regional Health District. "As a health district, one of our core functions is assessment of health and health risks, and poverty is a detractor from a better community. We need to understand poverty better to do our job, and since it was also an issue that was brought up repeatedly in the past election campaign, we decided that our major assessment project this year is going to be poverty."
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services establishes the so-called Federal Poverty Level (FPL) every year. The FPL takes the basic cost of food into consideration, but not childcare costs, medical expenses or social security taxes. The FPL mainly serves to provide social service organizations and federal entities a set number by which to qualify families and individuals for services.
The FPL for a family of four is an annual income of $17,050 -- this applies to all states, except Alaska and Hawaii, where the level is higher.
Based on this measure, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 9.2 percent of the population in Washington live in poverty, compared to 13.9 percent in Idaho. Nationwide, Maryland has the lowest poverty rate -- 7.6 percent -- and New Mexico the highest, with 20.8 percent of its population living in poverty. These are all 1999 numbers; the 2000 Census results are not yet available.
But the FPL can't be used as a guide for standard of living. The price of housing, power, healthcare and even food varies from state to state, so a poor family may be significantly worse off on a $17,050 annual budget in Maryland, than it is in Washington.
"In Washington state, we use 200 percent of the FPL as the cut off for many programs, so that's just one measure of poverty," says Thorburn. "Another measure is the number of children that are available for free or reduced lunches at school, but these two measures are not identical."
The Department of Social and Health Services estimates that 33 percent (137,026) of the population of Spokane County lives at or below 200 percent of the FPL. In Spokane School District 81, 45 percent of the elementary school children currently qualify for the free lunch program.
During the campaign, Mayor John Powers identified poverty over and over again as one of the city's top challenges. According to his estimates, one in three children in Spokane live in poverty, but many other estimates and numbers were thrown around, and Thorburn says that made it even clearer that a serious assessment was needed.
"If you look at the federal standards, then what was being said by some people during the campaign was way overstated," she says. "Then, the Spokane Chamber of Commerce printed a story in its newsletter, challenging the levels of poverty some candidates claimed during the campaign, so there is no doubt that there is a debate about poverty going on in the community. We believe that we need to come up with a consensus measure." To help reach that consensus, the Spokane Chamber of Commerce is partnering up on the assessment with United Way.
"When we hear people in public forums say the rate of poverty in Spokane is 30-40 percent, and we know the state's Office of Financial Management (OFM) says it's 12-14 percent, then, yes, we have been concerned that poverty has been overstated," says Janelle Fallan, the Chamber's vice president of strategic programs. "It doesn't help any of us to overstate the problem. But we need to know where poverty is at, as it relates to the overall economic health of our community and how we are positioned for the future."
One of the Chamber's continuous goals is to create a strong positive image of Spokane and the workforce and environment the area offers businesses. Being labeled as the poor area of the state doesn't sit very well with that image, and it may rub potential employers the wrong way.
"We are concerned as a community about having good jobs and supporting our employers and making sure our people have the skills needed to fill jobs that open in the area," says Fallan. "Obviously, we are very involved in workforce efforts, but not knowing where we are relative to poverty is not good. We just need to agree on what we are talking about. If we define the poverty level as 200 percent of the FPL, well, then fine, as long as we are all using the same standard."
By many estimates, Spokane has seen an increase in the number of working poor families over the past decade. More than 60 percent of the people served by Spokane's Second Harvest Food Bank last year said they had worked in the past year, and half said they had worked for more than nine months. The Second Harvest Food Bank has seen an increase in traffic -- just like the food banks in the rest of the state -- and it now serves more than 13,000 people every month, half of whom are children. Late last year, Washington placed in the top 10 for hunger in all of the 50 states.
But Fallan says the solution to the working poor's struggle is not necessarily higher wages.
"It doesn't do much good to say people need to make more money, we'd all like to make more money," she says. "When I see people complain that they work so and so many hours at minimum wage and it's still too hard to get by, then I always want to ask, 'What are you doing to improve your own life?' "
Where it's important to the Chamber to get some statistics and numbers out of this project that can be compared to other areas of the state and the country, the health district is more concerned with the actual struggles people face when subsiding on a minimum wage income in Spokane.
"A good definition of poverty, to me, is if you live below this level of income, you are struggling to get by," says Thorburn. "We plan to present an analysis of a family of four and what it actually costs, just the bare essentials like health care and housing and clothing, for them to get by. That's a good place to begin talking about the poverty measures."
United Way comes into the assessment process with much the same perspective.
"We definitely have poverty in Spokane. We are trying to come up with some consensus as to what we can use as a baseline for measuring it," says Victor Forni, president of the United Way of Spokane County. "I think it's important to develop a profile as for people to understand what poverty is. Like, a family of four making $16,000 a year -- what does that mean?"
Forni is not as concerned with the ability to compare Spokane numbers with statistics from other communities.
"I think we need to develop some baseline information so we can respond to issues in Spokane. We really need to look at what someone needs as a minimum existing," he says. "Then once we have set a baseline, then that can be tracked year after year, and we can see which way we are heading."
& & & lt;i & The first meeting about measuring poverty in Spokane County is Thursday, Feb. 7, from 9-11 am at the Spokane Regional Health District, 1101 W. College Ave., in the first floor auditorium, Room 140. Call: 324-3605. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &