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 high costs of living in detail.

At all four sessions, we heard about rising cost of living, lack of affordable housing, and difficulty making ends meet. When asked “What would you do with an extra $300-400 a month,” respondents at all sessions said that they would pay their bills and buy basic necessities.

In Ellensburg, an attendee told us that:

“I’m on Social Security disability and this year we only get like $900 a month and each month I always pay all of my bills first and that only leaves me like two, $300 to have to spend for the rest of everything that I need for the rest of the month. So if I had three, $400 more, then I could improve the quality of my life. I could buy more clothes, I could buy more food, I could save some money and actually start saving money up and not just always be in this cycle of, all right, I have $900 and then by the end of the month it’s pretty much gone over and over.”

Ellensburg Listening Session Attendee

Folks receiving cash assistance in Washington are not able to meet their basic needs. In High Point, an attendee imagined a different reality: “I would create a program that is – actually it was a bill that didn’t make it – the guaranteed basic income, so that every time the money people have is enough to live. Just guaranteed, regardless of education background, number of children, ’cause rent is so expensive. But having the minimum just to pay rent and utilities is not enough, just basic income. It will create safety and provide security and just makes it easier.”

Housing is one of the most basic needs, but one of the greatest expenses people face. Access to affordable housing and rent assistance would take a huge burden off of low-income families across the state. As we heard in High Point, “Well, for me it’s being in the middle because I don’t make enough to be like the three times the income to pay the rent, but then you don’t make little enough qualify for housing assistance or food stamps. … Also, long waiting list for housing. I know people who came back and left the state because it’s ridiculous. Years and years of waiting and then people come back that got the Section 8 voucher, some renters discriminate, and they say, “Oh no, it’s been rented” when it’s not, just because they don’t want problem tenants or deal with housing.”

Looking towards solutions, an attendee of our Skagit session told us that:

“I work specifically with the migrant families, bilingual families. And one of the things that I would love to see in the future, specifically here in Burlington, would be family housing that focuses on families that are farm workers, migrant workers, with systems in place so that our families learn English. So while they are living in stable housing and their kids are going to the same school all year round, versus being uprooted once, twice, three times a year. So it would be stable housing, parents could, if they needed to, have access to English classes, perhaps some job training.

My hope would be with such housing, that down the road it would break that cycle for that family.”

Skagit Listening Session Attendee

Prohibitively high costs for housing, long waiting lists for the affordable housing that is available, and the insufficient funds from benefits programs leave low-income Washingtonians vulnerable to experiencing homelessness or even priced out of the state.

Washingtonians across the state need access to affordable housing and more money in their pockets to meet their most basic needs. Cash and housing assistance programs should be easily accessible and provide a pathway out of poverty for the people they are designed to serve.

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