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 free spaces and activities for youth.

A major contributing factor to folks’ struggle to make ends meet is the cost of childcare. Many parents are forced to make difficult decisions between going to work and putting a significant chunk of their paycheck towards childcare or staying home with their kids without any reliable source of income. In Ellensburg, an attendee brought up that “I see parents every day who can’t work because they don’t know what they’re going to do with their kids if they go to work. My mom left me and my brother home alone, so she could work. Otherwise, she didn’t work and that was hard. Then you’re taking care of your younger sibling when you’re not even old enough to be taking care of yourself.”

During the pandemic, this choice was made for many parents for whom in person work was no longer an option. Parents love their kids, but also need time for themselves and to get things done. As we heard in Spokane:

“I think that for me, I’m a single mother of six kids, so it’s really hard to be with them all day long. And in the pandemic, you have nowhere to go, but be stuck with them. So it was really nice that they started the summer program with the cops, and it was for free. And also that the YMCA, they see that if you can’t afford it, they lower the cost for people that are low income.

And I think, as a mother, even if you’re a dad, you needed time for yourself, even if you only had one kid. And to me, that was amazing that they would make these programs for mothers and for fathers too, that are low income and they need somewhere where their kids are going to be safe. And the PALS, they actually feed the kids and they learn good morals and it was really nice. I really liked that.”

Spokane Listening Session Attendee

These free spaces were mutually beneficial for parents and children, giving parents much-needed time to take care of themselves, run errands, or even seek income at a job or by applying to benefits programs. For the kids, they provided a safe place to build community with peers, eat nutritious meals, learn important life skills or activities, and most importantly have fun and be kids.

The prohibitively high costs of after-school activities mean that children in low-income families miss out on not just fun, but important opportunities. In Spokane, we heard that “I think sports for me is a big one. I played sports growing up and my son’s really good at basketball. But at the same time, it’s a hundred something to play in sports, so it’s like you don’t have that extra income to try to better their lives. You know what I mean? Because you don’t never know… His uncle’s in the NFL, you don’t know if he can be a big star, you know what I mean?”

For immigrant communities and dual language families, programs for youth provide important learning opportunities for speaking English and navigating American culture. As we heard in High Point, “If we get that money, we can create a program for youth, a big program with youth, because our kid, we’re on our culture’s side, and they are on the America side, they are between. So if we get that money, we’re gonna make program for our youth to be nice and a good place and safe place to be out of the street.”

Another High Point attendee told us that “For the youngsters, for example, for the parents, they cannot help the kids with the education. English is a barrier. They can … I mean, there is, for example, the public community services. They provide for tutoring, but they have somewhat limitations. It took us so many years to get to that program.” While it is important for kids to be connected to their cultural traditions and language, it is also important that they get the tools they need to navigate the American systems and language they live in.

Across the state, we also heard about the importance of safe places for kids between school and home. When after school programs and activities are too expensive for families, kids are left to their own devices on the street, where they are often exposed to violence or traumatic experiences. In High Point, we heard about a desire for “less trauma in the community, less violence in the community. For the youth of today to grow up and be able to give back to their community and make their communities flourish in a better cycle.” Providing safe, free spaces for youth is an important step in making that happen.

In order for parents and kids to thrive, we need to provide free, safe spaces for youth. As a state, we need to prioritize making childcare accessible to and affordable for low-income families.

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