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Peeling the Layers of Poverty 

by Robert Herold


Mayor John Powers plans to launch his long-awaited poverty (now called "prosperity") initiatives after his "summit" scheduled for May. His success, I believe, will rest on the questions posed and with the quality of the supporting research and analysis. Description, taken alone, won't get it done. Anecdotes are not a substitute for serious empirical work. Another report that summarizes aggregate data won't do it either. Summit delegates will need analysis of collateral effects and unintended consequences of policies considered, and they must consider realistically the many factors that limit what cities can actually do.


Our summit attendees will be presented with a definition of poverty tied directly to personal income; supporting data will be presented to confirm this diagnosis; all heads will nod in agreement; then, discussion will drive straight to the "nub of the issue": the need for higher-paying jobs. "High tech" will be tossed on the table (as if it is something that can be ordered up). Discussion will focus on the need for luring new business to Spokane. They will talk about those enterprise zones. They will urge codification of the Comprehensive Plan. They will hear from all the folks who want more money for human services. The stacks of newsprint will be folded and stored.


They will adjourn. They will have failed. Consider, for example, the very notion of "poverty." Seems so obvious a concept, but it isn't. If we define it simply in terms of income and better-paying jobs, it turns out that we skate right over much complexity. In fact, all poverty can't be traced to low-paying jobs. Low-paying jobs don't cause all poverty -- in Spokane, maybe not even most of it.


Spokane is home to a disproportionately high number of retired people. Many live below the poverty level. Better-paying jobs won't help these citizens. Rather, they need relief from out-of-control utilities and health expenses. Nor is insurance an answer if one can't afford the wildly inflating premiums. What options do they have?


We must also avoid discussing solutions in isolation. Can we really go directly to "more and better jobs" in isolation from education and training?


If good jobs follow good education, should not the summit expand its exploration of our K-12 schools, our colleges and our universities? In a debate I had years ago with former District 81 Superintendent Gary Livingston, I argued that students of all demographic groups deserved strong grounding in the liberal arts and sciences. Livingston thought my suggestion unrealistic. He pointed out that only 50 percent of District 81 students, at that time, went on to college. Of this percentage, only 50 percent earn a college degree. Thus, he concluded, District 81 should tailor its programs accordingly. District 81 should reflect the community.


But what if simply reflecting the community doesn't provide the quality of graduates the community needs, now or in the future? If our schools are to produce graduates who can contribute to the intellectual, cultural and civic vitality of the community, then doesn't it follow that our education establishment should define the community and not merely reflect it?





Poverty as a problem looks to economic development as the solution. But just how do we measure economic development? More than a decade ago, Utah performed an analysis that did equate economic development with personal income. I have suggested that this analysis oversimplifies; but even if we should accept it, we will have to understand the connection much better than we do now.


What we need are more jobs that bring revenue into the community -- not more jobs of the sort that move money from one pocket and put it in another. We also need jobs that pay well. What if our analysis reveals -- as I believe it will -- that the payrolls that foot the bill are, for the most part, public-serving enterprises? I refer to federal and state agencies, the military, colleges and universities, K-12 schools, hospitals and regional service providers, including Avista.


And what would such a finding imply? We need to make a concerted effort to gain several hundred more state-subsidized students at EWU, several WSU doctoral programs, more (not less) federal and state presence, continued growth at Gonzaga, relief to the hospitals for revenue lost to welfare reform and a concerted effort to address out-of-control utility costs.


Sooner rather than later, we will also need to address the city-county situation. Conventional wisdom has it that the city bears a disproportionate share of our metropolitan area's social problems. Spokane's poorer neighborhoods struggle with the social fallout caused by state-mandated halfway houses. Is it true, then, that the county is getting a free ride? Perhaps Spokane's poverty has been artificially increased, willy nilly, by political action not of the city's choosing nor under its direct control. Maybe conventional wisdom will prove to be wrong. We need to know.


The list of important, never-before-asked (let alone analyzed) questions is a long one. The challenge to the mayor is daunting. He has made an important first step in identifying poverty as an issue to be wrestled with, but the journey to solutions is going to take many thousands of steps.

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