A study concerning low-income households in Whatcom, Island and San Juan County has been released to better understand the problems that they face. The study, entitled “Prosperity Project 2015” released by the Opportunity Council, is an update from a similar study done in 2006 that focused on childcare, education, healthcare, affordable housing and unemployment to better encapsulate their experiences.
“It pretty much validates what we see here on a daily basis,” said Jennifer Armstrong, director at San Juan Island Family Resource Center, who helped distribute and collect surveys from respondents.
“None of it came as a big surprise, I think it’s just helpful that the Opportunity Council consolidated this information where the public can be more aware of these issues.”
Respondents were primarily from Whatcom County, at 44 percent, with 33 percent from Island County and 23 percent from San Juan County. In San Juan, respondents were made up of 87 percent white people and 74 percent female. 16 percent of San Juan respondents were veterans.
Few living-wage jobs, transportation challenges, low availability of affordable housing, difficulties of finding affordable medical care or not being insured were some top issues that the study addressed.
In San Juan County, 51 percent of respondents rent their house, 38 percent are in “owner-occupied housing,” 4 percent were homeless and 3 percent were transitional/emergency shelter
Of all the counties, nearly one-third of survey responders, or 31 percent, said that in the last year, they had to make the decision of choosing between basic needs or paying their rent or mortgage. One in five had to share housing with another household to prevent becoming homeless.
The survey determined that “housing is considered to be affordable when households spend no more than 30 percent of their pretax income on housing costs.”
In this case, on average, the study found that renters and owners were spending nearly half or more of their income for monthly rent or mortgage payments. In other words, nowhere near affordable. The survey acknowledged that percentages could be higher, since those numbers did not reflect utilities or house maintenance costs.
San Juan County respondents said they had mostly good experiences with healthcare on the islands. Region-wide, high costs and not having insurance were major reasons for not receiving medical, dental, mental health or medications.
Dental care was identified as one type of healthcare that was especially difficult to find. Fish for Teeth, a local nonprofit, is one dental care provider that is trying to fix that problem in the county by offering free dentistry. The team recently came to San Juan Island Jan. 22. According to the study, “more than three in four survey respondents who did not receive needed dental or prescriptions cited high cost as a reason.”
Region-wide, the study identified a downward trend of licensed childcare providers, limited hours, few options for children with special needs, and the high cost of childcare relative to wages as problems that working parents often had with finding suitable healthcare.
Armstrong said that childcare is a big issue on island, especially during the summer when working parents have longer hours and preschool programs are on pause for the season. Another difficulty is finding affordable childcare for infants when parents have to go back to work.
San Juan County had positive responses for how their children are doing in school, with 74 percent of San Juan respondents saying their children were doing well.
Food and nutrition
Eighty-two percent of respondents in the three surveyed counties said that their household’s food supply was assisted by different programs. Yet, when asked if someone had skipped a meal in the past year because there wasn’t enough food, 43 percent said that was accurate.
Other issues the study addressed included community services, employment, education and transportation, to which 39 percent of San Juan County respondents stated that they are not able to afford using the ferry. Armstrong said that the Opportunity Council survey was another important data set that indicates the issues San Juan County households face.
“I think there’s already some good momentum starting to grow, particularly around the issue of affordable housing,” Armstrong said. “Making the community at large more aware that we have a significant number of households who are struggling is important. They’re working, but wages compared to standard of living leaves a big gap.”