The nature of poverty is changing around Seattle, as the ranks of poor families living in the region’s suburbs grow dramatically, and services struggle to adapt.
This was one of the central themes that emerged from the University of Washington West Coast Poverty Center’s inaugural Poverty Summit. The Sept. 29 event brought together policy makers, professors and nonprofit leaders to explore emerging challenges for poor families in the Puget Sound region, and new ideas to address these challenges.
The wide-ranging forum covered everything from the Seattle City Council’s 2014 decision to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour and financial obstacles faced by those returning home after an incarceration to how best to measure progress in alleviating poverty and its growth in the suburbs. Summit sponsors included Marguerite Casey Foundation, The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, United Way of King County, Seattle Foundation and the University of Washington School of Social Work.
At the summit, participants discussed a need to redefine what poverty truly is. Poverty is too often described in a negative context that blames those struggling with the experience. The fact that 14 percent of Seattle’s residents live in poverty, however, “is not an epidemic of personal failure,” said Lori Pfingst, research and policy director at the Washington State Budget and Policy Center, “it is a system failure.”
Today, poverty is rising more rapidly in the suburbs, where support for struggling families is not keeping pace with their needs, than it is in the cities, University of Washington Professor Scott Allard said on the panel addressing “The Suburbanization of Poverty.” The number of people living below the poverty line in Seattle’s suburbs soared from 121,000 to 228,000 between 1990 and 2010, while the number of people in poverty within the city’s limits rose much more slowly, from 90,000 to 106,000 over the same period, Allard reported.
Despite this reality, the public still views poverty largely as an urban problem, Allard said. “There is a huge gap in public awareness.”
While the summit raised more questions than it answered, it was clear participants were committed to answering these questions, and changing the way poverty is understood around the region.
“Seattle is in a unique position to tackle the challenges posed by poverty,” Allard said after the conference. “We have a strong regional economy, engaged political leaders and an innovative philanthropic sector. Hopefully, we can work together in the coming years to reduce need and increase economic mobility.”