Why many in state are hungry - High jobless, housing and mobility rates make Washington No. 2


Sept. 1, 2003

When Washington first emerged as a state with one of the highest hunger rates in the nation in 1999, poverty experts in the state and at the U.S. Department of Agriculture were puzzled.

It has been hard to explain why high-tech Washington is considered the second-hungriest state in the nation -- tied with Utah and just behind Oregon -- but is not even close to the top of the list of states struggling with sky-high poverty rates.

Now economists at ECONorthwest, an economic consulting firm with offices in Seattle, Portland and Eugene, Ore., have come up with evidence that Washington's hunger ranking is likely well-earned because it has grappled in recent years with high unemployment, housing costs and mobility rates.

Since the bottom fell out of the tech boom in 2000, Washington has battled one of the highest jobless rates in the nation. And with so little affordable housing available, about one in every five Washington renters spent more than half of his or her income on housing between 1999 and 2001. That left little over for necessities such as electricity, heat, medical care and food.

And about 20 percent of the people in Washington reported a different address in 2000 than in 1999, a mobility rate that is nearly twice that of stable, Eastern Seaboard states such as Pennsylvania and New York.

Joshua Trujillo / P-I
Evangelina Padilla, 4, looks into the bag of food given to her family at Northwest Harvest's Cherry Street Food Bank in downtown Seattle recently.
Economists say the mobility rate is a good measure of economic shocks such as divorce, unemployment and eviction. And Washington ranked the sixth-most mobile on a top 10 list dominated by rapidly growing Western states.

"The people that are moving in Washington don't know where the services are and don't have an aunt or a cousin at the end of the street they can go to if their cupboards are bare," said study author and economist John Tapogna, a former analyst for the Congressional Budget Office.

To the families that filed into Northwest Harvest's Cherry Street Food Bank in downtown Seattle Thursday, the idea that people in the Pacific Northwest are hungry because jobs are in short supply and rents are out of reach seemed obvious.

Drawn by the food bank's Thursday "Baby Day" offerings of diapers, formula and jarred baby food, many parents said they had recently lost jobs, been evicted or just couldn't cover their expenses with their low wages. Scrimping to come up with the security deposits to get a small apartment or even bus fare for job interviews, families said they are using food banks to fill gaping holes in their budgets.

Valerie Padilla said she was just beginning a four-month maternity leave from her $8.60-an-hour job at Wal-Mart in June when she lost her Federal Way apartment. The 21-year-old had been sharing the $903-a-month, three-bedroom apartment with nine others -- her boyfriend, sister, brother and all of their children. But when her sister decided to move out, taking a third of the rent contribution with her, Padilla didn't have enough savings to make up the difference.

She, her boyfriend, Wasser Salima, and their three children have spent the summer in homeless shelters in Seattle and Kent. Salima, 23, said he was fired from his $12-an-hour job laying asphalt after he did not go in on a rainy day when he thought the crew wouldn't be working. Now the couple don't know how they will pull together the $1,400 security deposit they need to get out of shelters.

"Apartments everywhere are so expensive, and you have to be making so much to afford them," Padilla said, holding 4-year-old daughter Evangelina's hand.

Moments later, Diane Connor wearily picked out a loaf of bread from a giant bin in the dimly lighted food bank. Connor, 47, said she was so badly injured in a car accident years ago that she now survives on Social Security disability income of $900 a month. Even though she depends on nearby Harborview Medical Center for care, she recently decided to trade her expensive Seattle apartment for a less expensive place in Edmonds. Her brother is lending her the security deposit money to make the move.

"It seems like everyone is just two paychecks away from social services like energy assistance, rental assistance, telephone assistance," she said. "The people with little kids, I don't know how they do it."

The Washington Low Income Housing Alliance estimates that in 2002, a Washingtonian had to earn $14.77 an hour in a 40-hour-a-week job to afford a two-bedroom apartment.

No one in the food bank line Thursday reported an income that high. Northwest Harvest Director Shelley Rotondo said the ECONorthwest study explains a pattern of food bank use she often sees.

Her clients experience a life disruption, such as an expensive move, a breakdown of a crucial car, an eviction, a medical crisis, a divorce or exit from a domestic-violence situation, and rely on the food bank for a relatively short period of time until they can rebuild their lives, she said.

"What we see so often is people transitioning from crisis back to stability," Rotondo said.

Tapogna, the economist, said one question his study raises is whether food banks are reaching people at the moment of crisis when they are most likely to be hungry. A middle-class worker just laid off or a person who has just moved to a new state in search of work is likely to be unfamiliar with the social service networks used by chronically poor families, he said. Such services include food stamps, food banks and housing.

"One implication of our work might be that the people showing up at food banks are not the same people who are necessarily hungry," he said.

For instance, Padilla, the homeless mother of three, said there were times she skipped meals this summer so her children could eat before turning to food banks.

"There are a lot of food banks out there," she said as she placed a bag of baby food in her family's faded red Volkswagen Golf. "You just have to find where they are."

When the Agriculture Department last year ranked Washington as second in the nation in hunger, it was not counting the kind of severe malnourishment associated with the Dust Bowl families of the Great Depression. Instead, it was measuring the prevalence of "food insecurity with hunger" -- the percentage of households reporting that at least one family member experienced hunger at some point during the year.

About 4.6 percent of Washington households experienced hunger between 1999 and 2001, the department found. Its head researcher on hunger, Mark Nord, said only about a fourth of those families reported being chronically, frequently hungry.

So most people who go hungry do so cyclically -- particularly in Western and Southern states, where people are more mobile. Tapogna and his co-researcher, Allison Suter, concluded that combating that kind of hunger requires targeted efforts to reach vulnerable displaced renters, newcomers and seasonal workers.

Tapogna said one obvious answer is increasing the supply of affordable housing. Another is building a cohesive social services network that can take the place of extended family and longtime friends and neighbors. He recommends the development of 211, the dialing access code for health and human services referral lines and information now being implemented in many states.

"In a society where neighbors don't know each other and everyone is moving around so much," he said, "artificial social webs could be an answer."


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