At Poverty Action, we believe that low-income communities and communities of color inherently have the expertise and experience needed to identify and lead solutions to the problems impacting them. Our work both starts and is carried out in partnership with Washingtonians living on low incomes, and it all starts with our semi-annual Listening Sessions.

The primary goal of Listening Sessions is to build relationships and trust with low-income Washingtonians across the state so that we can elevate their voices during the legislative session and beyond.

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.

Barriers to Entry and Difficulty Navigating Benefits Systems

The most common issue attendees spoke about at Listening Sessions 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. Even when people know about benefits options, attendees talked about experiencing poor treatment when they went in to ask for help.

When folks can navigate the process of getting onto benefits, they receive insufficient support to help them build up savings and transition off 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.

As a state, we need to make cash assistance programs work better for the people they are designed to help.

High Costs of Living

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. Additionally, access to affordable housing and rent assistance would take a huge burden off of low-income families across the state.

Washingtonians across the state need access to affordable housing and more money in their pockets to meet their most basic needs.

“Debt Sucks”

While this quote is from our Spokane session, we heard similar messages about struggles with debt at each of our Listening Sessions.

Despite working hard to make ends meet and get ahead in life, debt continues to make it difficult to pay other bills, buy basic necessities, and stay hopeful that hard work will pay off.

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.”

Free Spaces and Activities for Youth

A major contributing factor to folks’ struggle to make ends meet is the cost of childcare. Oftentimes, childcare costs would be higher than wages at a potential job, meaning parents have no choice but to stay home without an income.

Additionally, the prohibitively high cost of after-school activities means that children in low-income families miss out on not just fun, but important opportunities to play sports, learn skills, and build community with their peers in a safe environment. Free spaces and activities for youth provide essential structure and support that keeps kids safe and healthy.

Public Safety

Folks across the state are reckoning with the fact that the people who exist to keep them safe are oftentimes causing harm and disrupting people’s lives. People don’t feel safe turning to police officers for help due to concerns about being picked up for being homeless, misunderstood and mistrusted due to language barriers, or targeted for their immigration status.

Additionally, we heard concerns for the financial stability of folks who are or have been incarcerated. Folks who are incarcerated cannot earn enough to buy necessities at commissary, and a criminal record often prevents people from getting hired once they get out.

Overall, individuals and communities across the state would benefit from a reimagining of public safety to make systems more proactive and better woven into the fabric of communities.

Across all of this year’s Listening Sessions, the overarching theme we heard was that systems that are designed to help our state’s lowest income residents are not only not helping them, but often causing them harm. Low-income Washingtonians need help meeting their most basic needs for housing, food, and childcare. Debt, high costs of living and barriers to entry for benefits systems, reactive and punitive public safety systems are keeping residents in our state from accessing the resources they need to thrive.

While this year’s Listening Sessions have ended, we are not done listening to and centering the voices of low-income Washingtonians in our work. We will center the themes we heard this summer and fall in our upcoming policy agenda and will continue to work with low-income Washingtonians to amplify their voices through legislative testimony, blog posts, and more. Together with our community members, we’re changing the narrative on poverty in Washington state.

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