State poverty figures call out for a response

Washington has a growing problem with poverty that needs attention. Between 2006 and 2013, the percentage of people in poverty in Washington rose from 11.8 percent to 14.1 percent, and it may still be rising.

During 2012-13 alone, the most recent census data indicate, an additional 50,000 people in our state fell below the poverty line.

Washington is one of only three states where poverty continues to rise even after the recession; the others are New Jersey and New Mexico.

One in seven Washington residents is now poor, and about half of the people in poverty are children, the elderly and people with disabilities. Our state has 32,000 homeless school-age children.

During the Great Recession, successive waves of reductions in the state budget have hollowed out many of the state programs designed to make it possible for people to lift themselves and their children out of poverty.

The Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, program, for instance, saw grant cuts of 15 percent, and now provides just $478 per month to an out-of-work parent with two children. This is just 30 percent of the federal poverty level. And if a parent works 24 hours per week or more at minimum wage, he or she is ineligible for any financial support other than food stamps, which also have been reduced.

Until the most recent budget cycle, state budget woes also led to frequent hikes in tuition at both two- and four-year colleges, making it harder than ever to get the job training and education needed to break out of the trap of long-term poverty.

We see the result of this distress in our schools, where the gap in academic achievement between low-income kids and more affluent kids is stubbornly static, or, in some cases, rising. And there’s no doubt that failure in school is the single most powerful predictor of poverty in adulthood.

Communities of color — especially African Americans, Latinos, Pacific Islanders and Native Americans — are vastly over-represented among the poor and among students who are not thriving in school.

Many of Washington’s rural communities also have persistently higher poverty rates and fewer pathways out of poverty.

Clearly, change is needed, but it’s hard to agree on what could make the most difference. That’s why we welcome House Bill 2113, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Brady Walkinshaw of Seattle. It calls for an intensive, two-year effort to rethink the state’s anti-poverty strategies.

Walkinshaw’s bill creates a task force composed of legislators and “thought leaders” from the public, private and nonprofit sectors to create a plan of action for reducing poverty.

It’s an ambitious idea that the Legislature should embrace. In fact, there’s no excuse not to.

In recognition of the state’s continuing budget crisis, the bill comes with no cost. The task force is to be staffed by current legislative employees, who have significant expertise on state programs and national research and resources.

There is, of course, always the danger that a study will get mired in programmatic detail or infighting among programs.

But if this bill passes, as it should, we strongly urge legislative leaders to appoint task force members who are bold, independent thinkers who will provide a clear-eyed analysis of what works, what’s missing and what it takes to reverse the tide of growing poverty and despair in our state.