Washington not sharing in victory over poverty

By SHARON SALYER

Herald Writer

Even though census data show that the number of Americans living in poverty is declining, representatives of two local organizations that assist low-income families say the war on poverty is far from won.

"I think part of this issue is how do you define poverty," said Peter Berliner, executive director of The Children’s Alliance in Seattle. "Poverty is defined as so low in income that people well above the (federal) poverty level can’t meet their basic needs."

In fact, another federal report released in the fall shows that Washington state had the eighth-highest prevalence of hunger in the nation.

"Statistics often portray an average," Berliner said of Tuesday’s census report. "We continue to see rising use of food banks. There are lots of people in need."

Virginia Sprague who oversees distribution to Snohomish County’s 19 community food banks, agreed. During the first eight months of this year, more than 235,000 individuals were served in county food banks. Overall, demand for food at area food banks is up 6 percent for the fiscal year ending June 30, she said.

"I can’t really tie any of the national statistics as far a decrease in poverty level to anything here," she said.

"What we’re hearing from our food bank recipients is yes, they’re transitioning from welfare to work but they’re more dependent on food banks than they were before," Sprague said, because as they leave welfare, they often lose part or all of their food stamp benefits.

Nevertheless, Berliner credited one anti-poverty step, the federal earned income tax credit, with reducing the rate of children in poverty "probably more than any other single factor."

"When families sign up for that program, they get cash that puts them over the poverty line and puts food on the table," he said.

The Children’s Alliance has just established a Web site — www.washingtonparentpower.org — that allows people to find out what food, medical, health and scholarship benefits are available to low-income families.

In addition, the state recently opened a toll-free hotline (877-980-9131) staffed Monday through Saturday to advise low-income parents on what government assistance they qualify for.

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