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Housing, dental care among top needs for Whatcom County poor

Volunteer Cherie Glahn sorts canned food in the new addition of the Bellingham Food Bank Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016. Glahn says volunteering at the food bank is one of the “most positive things I do.” Compared to finding affordable dental care and housing, food assistance was one of the easier services for low-income Whatcom County residents to get.
Volunteer Cherie Glahn sorts canned food in the new addition of the Bellingham Food Bank Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016. Glahn says volunteering at the food bank is one of the “most positive things I do.” Compared to finding affordable dental care and housing, food assistance was one of the easier services for low-income Whatcom County residents to get. pdwyer@bellinghamherald.com

Affordable dental care, housing help and living-wage jobs were the greatest needs for poor Whatcom County residents and the hardest for them to find, according to the new Prosperity Project report.

The report tracked the experiences of those living in poverty in Island, San Juan and Whatcom counties, and those three needs were the top ones in all three counties.

They were the greatest needs as well the last time the report came out in 2011.

“Those continue to be a struggle, particularly dental care,” said Greg Winter, the executive director of the Opportunity Council who helped analyze results and write the report.

“Highlighting that need is really important,” Winter added. “Organizations in our community are working hard to try to improve dental care access.”

Among them is Unity Care NW, formerly Interfaith Community Health Center, which is expanding dental care for Whatcom County residents.

It doesn’t mean that we don’t encounter hunger issues and food security issues, but relative to other community services that are important to them, food assistance is pretty easy.

Greg Winter, who helped write Prosperity Project report

Data for the report came from a survey of 896 low-income households at social health and service sites in the three counties, with nearly half of those from Whatcom County.

The idea is to provide information to other social service agencies, nonprofits and the public so people have a better understanding of challenges faced by those living in poverty.

“It just screams that there are so many opportunities for our community to respond to the needs of low-income households,” Winter said.

Findings for Whatcom County households included:

▪ 59 percent said getting and keeping a good job was difficult for someone in their household. The top causes were too few jobs and disability.

▪ 75 percent said they didn’t have enough income to save money, while 53 percent said they had debt from medical or dental bills.

“It results in a great amount of stress,” Winter said of people not being able to save.

▪ 62 percent said getting help with paying for housing was “extremely important.”

“The rental housing cost burden was especially hard for people who did not have any rental housing financial assistance,” the report stated of the three counties. “On average, these renters spend $656 per month on rent, compared to those with rental assistance who spend only $299 per month on rent.”

Affordable housing remained among the greatest needs, with one-third of Whatcom County households saying they had to choose between paying the rent or mortgage or meeting other basic needs in the past year.

But the report did have some bright spots.

▪ For the first time, those who responded to the survey said affordable medical care was more available in all three counties even as they indicated they still struggled with debt.

In previous reports, people had said affordable medical care was generally difficult to get. This is the third Prosperity Project report.

“Our suspicion is health care reform and, particularly, the expansion of Medicaid has really resulted in better access for people from low-income households,” Winter said. “It’s a real big win for the community.”

▪ Food assistance was among the most available services.

“It’s good news. It doesn’t mean that we don’t encounter hunger issues and food security issues, but relative to other community services that are important to them, food assistance is pretty easy,” Winter said. “Our community does a great job responding to that need.”

Eighty-five percent of those surveyed in Whatcom County said they used food stamps while 66 percent used food banks.

Still, 24 percent said someone in their family had gone hungry because they didn’t have enough food, and 44 percent had skipped a meal.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

Read the report

Find the 2015 Prosperity Project at oppco.org/publications/. The report looks at the needs of those living in poverty in Whatcom, Island and San Juan counties.

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