Suburban poverty reflects new demographics in King County

More than half of Valhalla Elementary School
More than half of Valhalla Elementary School's 565 students receive free or reduced lunch. Hispanic students represent a majority of the Federal Way school's population.
— image credit: Andy Hobbs/Federal Way Mirror

South King County serves as a poster child for the nationwide trend in suburban poverty.

Unlike the "white flight" of the 1960s when white urban residents flocked to the suburbs, a reverse shift has occurred during the past decade.

In 2012, more poor people now live in the suburbs than in cities. That total is more than 16.4 million people nationwide — a 64 percent increase since 2000, according to the Brookings Institution, a prominent independent think tank based in Washington, D.C.

South King County's growing communities are among the subjects of a new book titled "Confronting Suburban Poverty in America" by Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube.

Berube, a senior fellow and deputy director at the Brookings Institution, shared his insights on local suburban poverty June 25 at the South King Council of Human Services (SKCHS) luncheon at Emerald Downs in Auburn.

SKCHS is a non-profit organization that helps improve access to housing, education, economic opportunities, racial equity and safe neighborhoods.

"The book affirms what we've been saying for years," said Nathan Phillips, SKCHS director, at Tuesday's gathering. "Resources don't flow to our region to address these challenges."

The luncheon was one of several engagements this week in South King County to launch a national tour for the book. The book takes a closer look at suburban poverty in Seattle, Chicago and Houston.

One local example is Tukwila, where more than one-third of the city's 19,000-plus residents are foreign-born. In addition to immigrants and refugees, Tukwila and South King County are seeing an influx of low-income residents in search of affordable housing due to rising real estate prices in Seattle.

Federal aid and resources continue to focus on the urban poor. Cities traditionally get a lion's share of the $82 billion in federal dollars devoted to the poor. Berube said outdated public policies fail to address the new definition of what it means to be poor in the U.S.

With the push to attract more businesses and jobs through economic development, cities like Federal Way — where more than 105 languages are spoken by families in its school district — should preserve affordable housing options and connect low-income residents to economic opportunities.

"Economic development doesn't mean moving the problem somewhere else," Berube told The Mirror, noting that Federal Way should continue to focus on basic needs such as education and transit. The latter is a critical link to jobs for low-income residents who lack adequate transportation.

As for education, the Road Map Project is a collaboration among seven area school districts to reduce the achievement gap among students. In December 2012, the project was awarded a $40 million grant from the U.S Department of Education's "Race to the Top" competition. The money will serve more than 261 schools and 150,000 students. Of those 150,000 students, 36,000 are considered high-need students.

Berube called the project a "regional quarterback" that strengthens the communities it serves.

"You are on the leading edge," Berube said, adding that the South King County region symbolizes where the rest of the country is going in terms of demographics and economics.

(Pictured: The Westway area, located off 21st Avenue SW near SW Campus Drive, is one of Federal Way low-income neighborhoods. Habitat for Humanity has rehabbed more than 36 homes in neighborhood.)


FYI: Numbers at a glance

Percentage change in median household income and population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau

• Federal Way: $49,278 in 1999 (pop. 83,259) vs. $53,716 in 2010 (pop. 89,306).

• Auburn: $39,208 in 1999 (pop. 40,314) vs. $57,642 in 2010 (pop. 70,180).

• Kent: $46,046 in 1999 (pop. 79,524) vs. $48,688 in 2010 (pop. 92,411). Note that with an annexation in 2012, the population is about 123,000.

• Renton: $45,820 in 1999 (pop. 50,052) vs. $61,819 in 2010 (pop. 90,927).

Percentage of families below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau

• Federal Way: 6.9 percent in 1999 (pop. 83,259) vs. 9.5 percent in 2010 (pop. 89,306).

• Auburn: 10.2 percent in 1999 (pop. 40,314) vs. 11.9 percent in 2010 (pop. 70,180).

• Kent: 8.7 percent in 1999 (pop. 79,524) vs. 23.1 percent in 2010 (pop. 92,411). Note that with an annexation in 2012, the population is about 123,000.

• Renton: 7 percent in 1999 (pop. 50,052) vs. 10.2 percent in 2010 (pop. 90,927).

Percentage of students on free and reduced lunch, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction

• Federal Way: 28.8 percent in 2000 vs. 56.3 percent in 2012 (total enrollment: 22,017 students)

• Auburn: 30.1 percent in 2000 vs. 53.6 percent in 2012 (total enrollment: 14,683 students)

• Kent: 26.5 percent in 2000 vs. 51.2 percent in 2012 (total enrollment 27,318 students)

• Renton: 31.4 percent in 2000 vs. 54.4 percent in 2012 (total enrollment: 16,979 students)

• Tukwila: 58.2 percent in 2000 vs. 77.2 percent in 2012 (total enrollment: 3,429 students)

• Seattle: 40.2 percent in 2000 vs. 43.2 percent in 2012 (total enrollment: 50,019 students)

• Washington state: 31.2 percent in 2000 vs. 45.5 percent in 2012 (total statewide enrollment: 1,043,031 students)

(Pictured: The Treepointe Apartments, 1811 South 308th Court, is located in an area of Federal Way where the median household income is $31,042, according to The median household income for the city overall is $53,716.)


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