The statistics have been repeated so often that they’ve become intellectualized, abstract.
Almost half of Americans report that they would struggle to come up with the cash to pay a surprise $400 bill. A $100 increase in median rent can lead to a 15 percent increase in an area’s homeless population. Twenty-eight percent of people making between one-third and half of Seattle’s area median income are rent burdened, meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent. Go lower than that to people living on the margins — immigrant families, refugees, disabled folks, etc. — and that figure shoots up dramatically.
Those numbers have real meaning: that people forced to make a choice between life-sustaining activities, such as eating or proper medical care, will give up their single biggest expense — housing.
The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Seattle hit $1,800 a month in October, according to an October rent report from Zumper, an online rental listing service. The number of people experiencing homelessness jumped up by double digits for two years running, and social service agencies report that most of their clients are locals.
“For a lot of people, it’s just affordability,” said Rachel Fyall, a researcher with the University of Washington, at a recent panel discussion about homelessness policy. Many homeless advocates embrace Fyall’s way of thinking, channeling their inner Jimmy McMillans and shouting that the rents are “too damn high” from the rooftop of a luxury condominium.
We decided to take a look at other expenses that approach the cost of housing in the Seattle area to see what people might have to choose over a roof and a warm bed.
Recent headlines demonstrate that, despite the promise of the Affordable Care Act, health insurance remains anything but affordable. Premiums for the 2017 coverage year increased by as much as 71 percent in some areas, with an average increase of 25 percent nationwide, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Maintaining subsidized health coverage requires a certain amount of wherewithal to get to appointments or prove your income, and dealing with a chronic condition can be extremely costly.
It was only in May that a federal judge ordered Washington state’s Health Care Authority to provide drug treatments for Hepatitis C patients earlier in their care — the previous standard meant that the sickest patients received the drugs, which range in cost between $54,600 and $94,500 for a 12-week course.
Other chronic conditions add up as well: $23,000 per year for HIV drugs, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and $7,900 per year for diabetes treatment as estimated by the American Diabetic Association.
It’s not hard, then, to see how an unexpected illness could lead to homelessness, and there’s evidence of a connection. Rates of chronic mental and physical illness are disproportionately high among people experiencing homelessness when compared to the housed, according to the National Coalition for the homeless.
It’s expensive in time and money to get around the city of Seattle. Transit fares continue to creep upward, and although improvements to the light rail system are to be praised, the slower bus system remains the backbone for most people who rely on public transit.
King County subsidizes transit for low-income people through its orca Lift program, which cuts the price of a monthly pass in half, and through the recently expanded bus ticket program for human services agencies. However, transit advocates are pushing for a $5 monthly pass similar to a program in Toronto, Canada, to open doors for people who need transit.
For people balancing work, school and kids, busing may not be an option. A person would have to lease an extremely fancy car for monthly payments to get anywhere near the cost of rent in Seattle (we did find a Mercedes S550 that clocked in at $1,696 per month), but in 2015 the AAA announced that the cost of owning and using a car was $8,698 per year. That’s just under $725 per month.
Many families struggle with the cost of child care, which the Economic Policy Institute cites as one of the biggest bills that families face. The median cost of child care for an infant in a child care center in King County is $1,465, according to Child Care Aware of Washington, a nonprofit that advocates for high-quality child care and early learning programs. The total goes down as the child gets older, but dropping a school-age child off at a center remains a $607 undertaking each month.
That means that some families have to choose between an adult staying at home with the children rather than getting employment because the expense is so high. The Seattle City Council made an effort to help defray the costs in the current budget cycle by freeing up $670,000 to provide child care at school facilities.
To be effective, however, schools would have to sign on for the duty or the City Council would have to loosen up-zoning codes to allow for child care centers in places other than single-family homes and commercial spaces. Until then, the cash set aside for the child care for low-income families will be waiting in the wings.
Food consumption touches on many areas of life for people experiencing homelessness. There’s a base cost — the United States Department of Agriculture estimates that a family of four with two school-age children can expect to spend between $657.10 and $863.20 per month on food if they follow the “thrifty” or “low-cost” meal plans. Bump up to moderate and a similar family’s budget jumps to $1,075.70.
Hidden, too, is the price advantage of cooking and storing food, which allows people to stock up on cheaper items and avoid eating out. That can mean cost savings, but also a health boost from avoiding cheap, processed food.
Want to get a degree that will lead to a living-wage job? A diploma from an institution such as the University of Washington could be a big help, but it’s also a burden due to tuition and the cost of learning materials, not to mention the cost of studying rather than working.
The university estimates that a year at UW will cost in-state students $14,257, not including the expense of food and rent. If you don’t happen to hail from the Evergreen State, that more than doubles to $38,295. It’s a quick way to accumulate a lot of debt, and student debt remains the only kind that cannot be cleared through bankruptcy.
OK, the otter that stole the hearts and attention of Seattle is not, in and of itself, a tax on poor people. Rialto’s story, as told by The Seattle Times, should make us think.
Rialto had a number of human minders while he recovered from his near-death experience near Olympic National Park, The Seattle Times reported. Six people stayed in constant rotation to monitor the otter’s health and keep him fed. Between food and care, saving the endangered creature cost $1,500 per day. This is not to say Rialto should have been sacrificed at the altar of fiscal austerity. It does point to something fundemental: the role that institutions play in caring for the most vulnerable, and the necessary cost of doing so.