This summer and fall, Poverty Action staff, board members, and facilitators from our Community Leadership Groups (including the Poverty Reduction Work Group and the Campaign for Cash), traveled to High Point, Ellensburg, Spokane, and Skagit (virtually) to host Listening Sessions. Each Listening Session was planned in partnership with local organizations working actively with the communities we traveled to. We structured our sessions to allow space for every participant to share their experiences and perspective. We facilitated conversations around accessing financial assistance and basic needs programs, the criminal justice system, healthcare and consumer debt, and more.

Facilitators from the Poverty Reduction Work Group and the Campaign for Cash did incredible work to make these Listening Sessions productive, welcoming, and inclusive conversations. For many, this was their first time facilitating, while for others it was an opportunity to refine their skills. These folks stepped up to not only ask questions and do time management, but also open up about their lived experiences to help attendees feel safe sharing their stories and build community across the state. We cannot emphasize enough how grateful we are for their vulnerability, their bravery, and their facilitating skill that made these sessions successful.

Across these sessions, we heard several key themes including barriers to entry and difficulty navigating benefits systems, high costs of living, difficulty repaying debt, a need for free spaces and activities for youth, and reckoning with public safety.

For a summary of each of these key themes, read the full recap. This blog post will explore what we heard about barriers to entry and difficulty navigating benefits systems in detail.

The most common issue we heard about at Listening Sessions across the state was the barriers to entry and difficulty navigating benefits systems that they faced.

Many attendees reported not knowing what programs existed, preventing them from accessing help they need and qualify for. In our Spokane session, an attendee recalled “I didn’t have any idea about WIC when I had my first four of my five children and so we were paying for four kids. And if we had known about that, that would’ve saved us a whole lot of money.”

In Ellensburg, we heard that:

“And I say this with a grain of salt, I’m sure there are people in there who genuinely do care about the people that they work with, but there’s nobody over there telling you, these are resources that you qualify for or we can help you with rent assistance or we can help you with this or that. If you don’t have the knowledge to go and look these things up yourself, they’re not offering up this information to you.

And so that’s also, I feel like a huge challenge because if you don’t know what’s out there, then how are you supposed to ask for help? And so, I think that’s something that I’ve personally encountered. But I also had a mom who, I grew up in the system with a mom, and so through her I knew about more things. But I’ve seen a lot of people not know that DSHS can help you pay for rent sometimes, or DSHS can help you with food stamps or other things like that. But then again, as soon as you start working, usually disappears.”

Ellensburg Listening Session Attendee

Even when people know about benefits options, they continue to face barriers to entry. Attendees talked about experiencing poor treatment when they went in to ask for help. In Ellensburg, an attendee told this story:

“I went down to, it was then called the welfare office. I went down there.

And they actually laughed in my face because we got $50 over what their limit was for family of four. They laughed in my face, and the next time my husband wanted me to go down there, I said, I’m going to starve first. I’m never going back there again.

So then I wanted, years later, I wanted to get a letter of denial from DSHS to give a copy of it to the hospital so I could get my emergency hysterectomy bill taken care of. And that girl, standing on the inside and she looked at me, she said… And she seriously looked at me from head, head to toe. And she says, “Well, what’s wrong with you”? And I say, “Well, you know what? I have my elderly mother and she needs 24 hour care.” “Well, why don’t you just go get a job? You look like you’re capable of a job.”

And it was all I could do, not to cry right in front of her. I turned around, went out far and cried. And so at that point, I told my husband, never again. I’m never going begging for nothing again.”

Ellensburg Listening Session Attendee

Bias and burn out don’t have to be explicit to pose a barrier to entry for asking for help. Another Ellensburg attendee told us “If you can’t look at a person as a human when you’re helping them in their hardest time in need, you’re just looking at your computer and typing up all this information that you’re getting, and as you’re getting that information, you’re just like, “Okay. Yeah, sure. Let me document that,” you have nothing to add to the conversation, it’s actually really hard to even tell anyone at DSHS what you’re going through. Because it’s like you’re getting judged the whole time.”

There are even more barriers to entry for folks for whom English is a second language. At our Skagit session, we heard that “There’s a huge language barrier also with information being given out. At this moment, Vamos Outdoors Project has partnerships with Digisun Energy for energy assistance. And we have established workshops to be able to provide simple online programs, that families can just go on and apply themselves for energy assistance. But because of the language barrier and how inaccessible this information is to the Latina community, we’re able to bring that community in and share that information and help them enrolled in simple program to get some kind of discount in their energy bill. So we’re looking to do that so more, but that is something that hasn’t been implemented before.” Similarly, we heard about lack of access to information and issues asking for help among folks in High Point for whom English is a second language.

Even when folks can navigate the process of getting onto benefits, they receive insufficient support to help them build up savings and transition off of benefits. Time limits and low income/asset caps mean that folks are sometimes kicked off benefits while they don’t earn enough to make ends meet. In Spokane, we heard that “I’ve had friends cut off the food stamps and whatever. The second they tell them about a job, they haven’t even actually gotten a paycheck yet, but their benefits were cut off because now they’re working. … Why isn’t there a buffer period so you can breathe for a minute before they cut everything off?”

Similarly, another Spokane attendee told us:

“[The TANF time limit] really hits me harder than the amount of money. The length of time is not long enough. However, the 20, 25 hours of non-work that TANF makes people do is pretty much really, really hard for a healthy person that’s really, really, really motivated to do it.

It just seems like… I’m doing school. I’m doing mental health counseling once a week. I’m doing the YWCA advocate on top of that. That’s once a week. On top of that I have to do another group an hour a week. All those challenges, not challenges, but things that I have to do around raising a child as well and then my homework and everything else, that’s like…When am I going to get a job? They need to coordinate, figure out a better way to figure out how to get a job, how to get people more stable than just here’s your money.”

Spokane Listening Session Attendee

Many reported that this incentivized people to remain unemployed, even when offered job opportunities. In Ellensburg, we heard that “So I had a friend years back and she had a baby, and at the same time, her son was very, very sick. She was offered a job in Moses Lake, a very well-paying job, but she had to turn it down because there would go all of her medical benefits and all of her food benefits and everything. So she had to turn the job down and then she ended up giving her baby away to somebody that she knew that knew somebody that really wanted a baby and couldn’t have one.”

These barriers to entry and roadblocks to navigating benefits systems hold low-income Washingtonians back instead of facilitating a pathway out of poverty. As a state, we need to make cash assistance programs work better for the people they are designed to help.

Read the full listening session recap and the other key theme deep dives: