Alan’s Reflections on Recent Seattle Visit

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  • July 16, 2013

On June 24 and 25, I visited the Seattle area to discuss Confronting Suburban Poverty in America with a wide variety of audiences in the region. The suburban communities south of the city of Seattle, specifically Tukwila, feature prominently in the book. So does the Road Map Project, a unique collaboration among six school districts in South King County, WA, together with schools on Seattle’s south side, to raise student achievement levels and prepare them for post-secondary education and careers.

This was my second visit to the region to discuss suburban poverty; in October 2011, Elizabeth and I spent two days in Seattle and South King County as part of our field work for the book. This time, I had the opportunity to talk with a wide variety of stakeholders in the region about our findings, including service providers, advocates, funders, media, and government officials at the municipal and county levels. A few themes recurred across many of our conversations:

Identity. There is a widespread perception that–despite slowly increasing local and national attention to the challenges and opportunities present in South King County–regional, state, and federal leaders ignore those communities. Our own analysis, for instance, suggested that despite the fact that suburban King County has more poor residents than the cities of Seattle and Bellevue combined, the latter communities received five times as many federal dollars for affordable housing development in 2012 as the former (see my presentation above). Human services funding from federal and state governments portrays a similar imbalance; and philanthropic funding in the region seems to follow a similar pattern. There are lots of reasons for this, including the historical lack of a coherent identity for South King County itself. The sub-region actually has a larger population than the city of Seattle, but for too long, across too many issues, and like too many of their counterparts, South King County’s cities have competed against one another for resources and attention. The Road Map Project is helping to change that dynamic in the education arena, and actually builds on a modest but expanding track record of municipal collaboration in South King County. But as Nathan Phillips, Director of the South King Council of Human Services, puts it, “Why shouldn’t we ultimately have a Road Map Project for affordable housing…and social services…and transportation…and economic development?”

Capacity. For many funders, the problem of providing adequate support to South King County comes down to a question of capacity. Namely, they felt that there were fewer organizations in that sub-region with the scale, experience, and professionalism that one could find in the city of Seattle’s nonprofit and public sectors. The problems of poverty are newer there, the populations more diverse, and the governance structure more fragmented, all factors that can complicate the development of strong local organizations and governments dedicated to addressing poverty in place. Yet South King County is hardly a wasteland of social entrepreneurialism. Well established organizations and collaborations are present throughout the region, like the South King Council, the White Center Community Development Association, and the Multi-Service Center in Federal Way. The Road Map Project is injecting new energy and resources into the innovative work of school districts in Kent, Auburn, and elsewhere to reach students with summer learning and services. To be sure, there are many organizations in South King County that are very thinly capitalized and not well matched to the challenges at hand. But if ever there were a suburban area to bet on for showing a new way to promote opportunity at the regional scale, this might be it.

Money. Identity and capacity aside, eventually it all comes down to resources. There are still many families and communities in need in the city of Seattle, and moving more resources from the city to South King County won’t solve the fundamental problems of poverty throughout the region. However, the southern suburbs are particularly disadvantaged by their small size, limited affluence, and the constrained fiscal powers of King County. King County  raises almost 25% less in revenue per person than Cook County, IL, another large urban county with suburbanizing poverty. To provide a stronger platform for its struggling families, King County might look to the example Seattle has set with its Families and Education levy. In place since 1990, the latest levy (approved in 2011) raises $230 million annually ($124 from the typical Seattle household) to support preschool for 4 year-olds, extended learning time and wrap-around services for elementary and middle school students, college readiness for high school students, and integrated health services in high-needs schools. A similar King County levy, particularly for areas outside Seattle, could go a long way toward achieving the goals of racial equity and social justice around which the county has been a national leader for some time.

As Mary Fertakis, Tukwila School Board Director and an early leader in the Road Map Project, said at the launch event for our book in May, “These are OUR kids.” They are the future of the Seattle economy. The region, and the nation as a whole, thus have a huge stake in SKC today.


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