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 debt in our state.

“Debt Sucks”           

Spokane Listening Session Attendee

While this quote is from our Spokane session, we heard similar messages about struggles with debt at each of our Listening Sessions. Across the state, people face massive amounts of debt from student loans, housing costs, legal fees, court costs, payday loans, and more. As student loan repayments have started up again after the pandemic, many are facing insurmountable mountains of debt that are only rising due to high interest rates and other fees.

In Ellensburg, an attendee told us this story:

“Me and my brother both had to quit our jobs to take care of my grandma when she was dying.

So together we both quit our jobs and in terms of not wanting to get into debt, the programs that they have for people who are going through that, if you have elderly family on low income, they ask that when your family member dies, that they may take your family member’s assets to pay that help back.

So we did not take their help because we were not going to leave my grandma’s house. And so they’re very limited for people who are taking care of their families and nobody looks at you like, “Oh, that’s an honorable thing that you’re taking care of your family member.” It is, “Why aren’t you working? Why don’t you find somebody to do it for you?” “Well, there is nobody else.” So do you abandon your family or do you take that fall and you go backwards yourself in life because that person’s done so much for you, you’re not just going to leave them. So in terms of that area, there’s not very much for elderly people either.

And me and my brother both accrued a lot of debt during that time because we were not paying our bills or taking care of our needs. It was a priority to take care of our grandma.”

Ellensburg Listening Session Attendee

For many across the state, choosing to take care of loved ones or even just try to get by means accruing debt. This is particularly scary for immigrant communities who are unfamiliar with debt collection and relief processes in the United States. In Skagit, we heard that:

“A lot of times we work with families who tell us I need money because I’m in debt or I need to pay something, either a bill or a medical bill or a rent bill. And we just try to support them with saying, okay, let’s apply for whatever programs are available in our community that can give you either a discount or can give you some kind of assistance, whether it’s energy assistance, rent assistance, anything, right? So maybe shifting the money. And it’s a little bit complex because in a lot of the countries that these people come from, it doesn’t work that way. They can easily just go to the Digisun Energy office and say, “I need a discount,” and then they’ll get it right away. Whereas here, there’s a system, a process that needs to go through.

But for us, that’s one way that we can support the families in saying, okay, we need to get you all of the help that you need. And then whatever money that comes from that assistance, then you can submit it into that help for that debt. But it is really, really scary for families to go into collections, because again, a lot of these families are trying to be in the shadows and try to stay away from any standing out because of the fear of being aware that they’re here.”

Skagit Listening Session Attendee

Once folks accrue debt, they face incessant calls, letters, and more from debt collectors seeking to profit from their struggles. In Ellensburg, we heard that “But you do have debt collectors that call you and I’m sorry, man, I run from them. I hide, I turn my phone off, I don’t answer. The bills that come in the mail, I don’t look at them. It’s not the right way to approach it and I know that, but what else can I do? What can I do? You come out of where we come from, but you get off the streets and you come up and you still just got another thing beating you down. So it does get stressful because I want to do good. I don’t want to be a slouch, I don’t.”

Despite working hard to make ends meet and get ahead in life, debt and aggressive debt collectors continue to make it difficult to pay other bills, buy basic necessities, and stay hopeful that a pathway out of poverty exists.

As the attendee from Spokane continued, “As much as I’m trying to get ahead, I’m really not. I’m basically robbing Peter to pay Paul just to survive.”

We need to redesign a debt collection and relief system that protects low-income Washingtonians from predatory practices, provides hope for borrowers, and protects a pathway out of poverty for folks just trying to get by.

Read more in-depth about each of our key themes: