Thursday, July 16, 2015

SNAP in Pierce County

by Clara Kerrone, Marketing Intern
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is our country’s biggest and most important food assistance program. Essentially, it is food assistance provided by the USDA for low- or no-income Americans. Those who quality receive an EBT card that allows for an average of $4 per person per day in assistance. In 2014, more than 46 million Americans fed themselves with the help of SNAP; over 70 percent of these users were households that included children.
The card is designed to be supplemental in purchasing food- not the entire budget. But for many families, it ends up being the bulk of their funding anyways. And paying for food is not their only obstacle in getting food on the table. Many families live in areas called food deserts, which are areas without immediate access to fruits, vegetables, and other healthy whole foods. Further, many of these families also do not have access to a car and therefore end up having to walk to the store or take the bus. As a result, they can only purchase what they can carry back home with them.
Many families who qualify to receive SNAP are working minimum wage jobs, and often times they are working more than just one job in order to make enough money to provide for their family. An issue with SNAP is that it is based off of a food plan that intends for all meals to be home made from scratch daily. This would be a wonderful reality, to be able to home cook every meal, but there is just one problem with it: most of the families who are working more than one job do not have that amount of time for meal preparation. The time it takes to fully prepare a home cooked and well-balanced meal is just too much when juggling two jobs and a family as well. So there we have yet another obstacle with SNAP for these families.
Luckily, in Pierce County, we have many programs to help families who are facing these issues. FISH Food Banks is an awesome local food bank that is able to turn every $1 donated into $7 worth of food! More than 97% of funds raised go directly to putting food on the tables of people in need. Emergency Food Network is able to give every person that walks into their food bank enough food for 9 meals. Pierce Transit is also an awesome bus system that we have which covers a great deal of our county with tons of bus stops. Our community is working at great lengths to remove these obstacles from families benefiting from the SNAP program.
There are a number of ways you can give back to help these families that are struggling to put food on the table. Donating to your local food bank is a great way to help, as is volunteering at these places. For your own personal learning opportunity, you could even try the SNAP challenge. Compute the amount of assistance your family would receive for one week ($4 per person per day), hide away all the food that you own, and live a week with this lifestyle. Use the bus system to get to and from the grocery store and work. We could all benefit from living life in someone else’s shoes for a week, and gaining a greater appreciation for the world around us.



Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Back 2 School

by Clara Kerrone, Marketing Intern

As a twenty-one year old working a minimum wage job almost full time, I can barely make my pay checks stretch toward where I need them to go. Luckily I am somewhat financially supported by my parents, and I am thankful for that every day. So when I learned that families living in poverty in Pierce County are making an average of $1,327 per month, it really hit home for me. That is a paycheck comparable to what I am making; I can’t imagine having to support a child with that as well. And that would be without my mom paying my phone bill still! I looked into it more and learned that it is estimated that $968 of that money is spent on housing, leaving only $359 for the rest of the month to be spent on food, transportation, childcare, and other necessities. Tough choices are being made daily for these families- pay for groceries or get gas? Doctor’s appointment when your child is sick, or a new pair of shoes once the old ones are outgrown?

The fall can be an especially stressful time of the year for these families- the start of the school year brings tons of new required purchases for families with children of any age. School supplies and new clothes, backpacks, a winter coat, shoes, and more all need to be restocked. Some of these may not be yearly purchases, but most are. 

I wanted to find out approximately how much it would cost to send a child to school, living off the average low income budget, so I did a little research. I went on the website of a local elementary school and looked up the kindergarten school supply list. I followed it exactly, and if a specific brand wasn’t asked for I chose the cheapest available option. The total cost- $66.60. Then, I decided to buy my “child” an outfit. I went to Old Navy (because deals!) and picked out a complete outfit- shirt, jeans, shoes, jacket, socks and underwear. Once again, I chose the least expensive items that I could. The outfit totaled $93.64. And that was just one outfit! Ideally, I would want my child to have more than garment to wear. But with my budget, I had already spent $160.24, almost half of my monthly spending budget. That left me $198.76 for the month. My monthly wifi bill (I don’t have cable, to save money) costs $62.00 and my utilities bill is around $90.00. So the final amount of money I have leftover to put food on the table for my “family” and get gas in the tank is $46.76. Basically, impossible.

Having the real numbers right there in front of me, backed by my own real life work schedule and personal experience, made my heart hurt. I remember the first day of school being so exciting because of reuniting with friends, and being able to wear my favorite new outfit with pride. There are so many kids that don’t have that feeling on the first day- they could instead even feel like an outsider because of their clothes and lack of school supplies. This should never be the case.


Luckily, there are a lot of programs available to help these families out with back to school shopping. United Way of Pierce County’s Back 2 School program is one of them. We help more kids start the year with the quality supplies they need to succeed by allowing community members to help out in several ways. You can Build a Backpack to provide a quality backpack and supplies for a child of any grade level. You can hold a Supply Drive at your organization or make a donation of supplies. Or, you can simply make a Cash Donation and we’ll do the shopping for you. That way, when September comes around, household’s all around our county will be able to have one less burden to worry about- and maybe even celebrate the first day of school with a delicious dinner eaten together around the table as a family.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Beating the Summer Slide

by Clara Kerrone (Marketing Intern)

Summer is such an exciting time for everyone, but especially kids. School’s out, the sun is shining, and there are endless days ahead of them for fun times with family and friends! Some of my favorite summer memories include countless sleepovers with friends and camping trips with my family. Another favorite was doing the summer reading challenge at the library- my mom would take us to the library near my house every few weeks to check out new books, and we would get stamps from the librarian to track how many books we had read, which led to awesome prizes when we hit certain goals.

The one hidden downside of summer break, however, is a sneaky learning barrier called the “summer slide.” The summer slide is basically the concept that when kids take a break from learning over the summer, they can lose a minimum of 2 months’ worth of knowledge they had worked so hard to gain during the school year. Children from low-income families can lose even more during this time, because of a lack of access to learning resources such as having books to read at home, or being able to participate in engaging summer camps. This lack of access to after-school and summer programs leads to students falling behind by as much as two grade levels by the time they're done with elementary school. And even worse, if a child isn’t at reading level by the end of the third grade, studies show that they are six times more likely to drop out of school.

As discouraging as those numbers can be, it is important to remember that we can prevent that learning loss! This is a huge goal of United Way this summer. There are so many ways to keep kids on track. The Tacoma Public Library’s Summer Reading Club offers both free access to books and a fun incentive for kids to keep reading all summer long. The YMCA offers tons of free summer camps that are both fun, and academically engaging so kids can learn without even realizing that they are, or feeling like they're in school.

United Way of Pierce County is kicking off our summer learning initiative with Day of Action on June 19th, and we are confident that this event will get the wheels turning in the right direction for the whole summer. We have joined in with the Free Little Library’s program, a national movement where members of the community build small library’s (think dollhouse sized!) to be placed around the city and continuously stocked with free books. The idea is that members of the community can then take a book from the little library and replace it with one of their own, so the selection is always changing. Recently I was going on a walk down McCarver street and noticed one- and it had tons of books in it! The friend I was with told me that it had been there for a while and that she always sees people using it. It made me even more excited for Day of Action, and to see these Little Library's popping up all over our community.

We believe that successful kids start with strong families, and a supportive community. That’s why helping fund these free programs for kids is an important part of what we do, and something we will stand behind for years to come. Little Library's and summer reading are a perfect way to work towards our goal of breaking the cycle of poverty by 2024.

So this summer, when you’re figuring out child care and fun activities to fill your kid’s time, don’t forget how important it is to keep them involved in programs that do more than just let them spend some time in the sun. Then someday, they will look back on their summer's and remember those programs of being some of their favorite memories too, just like the book challenge at the library was for me!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Surviving is the New Black?

by Sean Armentrout, Vice President of Corporate Relations

Frustration is rising. I need to contact the mortgage company because rent is due this week. But I have to wait for my spouse to come home from work with money because today is pay day. Two more minutes pass. Now I’m anxious. Come on, we have to get this done. I only have two minutes before the timer hits and the week is over. My spouse gets home but the buzzer goes off. Our make-shift family now realizes that we are too late and are going to be evicted?



This is the experience I got to participate in with over 100 others at Pacific Lutheran University with their three hour poverty simulation this past Wednesday evening. Volunteers played the roles of numerous providers from schools, the police, banks, mortgage companies, utilities, the social services administration, and a pay day loan provider to just name a few. The rest of us were placed in families with a detailed portfolio of who we are, our circumstances, job (or lack thereof details), and the expenses we are facing; all are tough choices. I need to pay the mortgage or at least part of it, but pay day isn’t until the end of the week. Do I pay for clothing or my kid’s school activity? Great, I just received a card. The dreaded card, telling me our car broke-down. Now I have to wait some more.
As we all regrouped in a circle after the exercise, it became clear. Everyone had felt pressure. Tensions had risen, and we were all frustrated. All of these feelings arose after played out only 4 weeks in poverty; each week consisting of fifteen minutes.

I remember one young college student in a black Old Navy sweatshirt  describe how her ‘family’ started off bad but ended up “OK.”  A common experience where one mistake would set you back -- whether believing you could cash a check at a bank (where you don’t have an account) or going to the wrong agency for help could set you back. But if you were able to recover just fast enough you could be “OK.”


But OK shouldn’t be enough. A common feeling as we all tried to win in this game of life- life in poverty that is. But OK was just survival. It wasn’t better opportunities; it wasn’t relief from a situation that had no end in sight- it was just being OK. OK for one month. And many of our ‘families’ didn’t end up OK like the some of the others. As I mentioned before, my family was evicted because we were late by one day.
So should OK and merely surviving be the new definition of success? Is this now acceptable? We all hear how “pink is the new black” or “40 is the new 30.” I often use the last one to feel younger as my forty second birthday just passed me by. But survival alone should never be the new OK.


It stressed to me how important a community coming together to tackle our toughest challenges is. How just providing services isn’t enough. Services many can’t reach, qualify for, or even know where exists. Not to mention they are often spread-out far away from those who need them; far from a family with one car, no car, or even reliable public transportation. It didn’t create despair, but instead, a feeling of tenacity. Perhaps even a fight inside of me. We can do better. We have to do better. Failure isn’t an option. So I look forward to the new partnerships arising whether Graduate Tacoma or United Way’s piloting Centers for strong families, where the vision, the mission, the measurements all strongly state that survival is not the new OK.

Poverty Simulation


by Mike Leonard, Resource Development Officer

Last night I had the opportunity to participate in a Poverty Simulation, hosted by Pacific Lutheran University. Roughly 70 people participated in the role play, most of them students from PLU, and a few of us from the non-profit sector.
We were randomly provided with the role of a family member. I was a grandfather of two young children, ages 7 and 9, married to Zelda. I received a monthly disability check for $500 and Zelda worked full time for minimum wage. We were guardians of the two granddaughters. Both parents are out of their lives; a mother incarcerated for drugs and no dad in the picture.


Our family was provided with a monthly budget that exceeded our take home pay. During our role play, we broke down each week into 15 minute segments. We worked frantically to get the kids to school, take the bus to pay our bills, and make tough choices on which bills we could pay.
As each 15 minute “week” passed by, the role play became more stressful. One week I forgot to buy groceries for the kids. By the third week, we ran out of money to pay for our youngest granddaughter’s medication, but we were able to keep up with mortgage and utility payments. By the end of week 4, we had $20 to our name.  Zelda missed getting to the bank on time before the end of the “month”, and we owed money for food, phone, clothing and an old debt to the bank. Challenging and stressful to say the least.


After the role play, participants broke into small groups to share thoughts and emotions. We then gathered into a large circle to digest what we experienced. Each participant was asked to share one take-away with the person sitting next to them. For me, it was the realization that 70 individuals will wake up today with a better appreciation of the struggles that so many families face every day.  And some may even choose to make a difference.
United Way of Pierce County invests in children and their families. By focusing on programs that help young children and their families, we can remove the barriers preventing them from breaking the cycle of poverty. Through strong families and successful kids, we can create a thriving and connected community.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Raise Your Voice for Working Families on EITC Awareness Day

What would you do if you knew there was a proven solution that lifts millions of children and working families out of poverty each year… a tool that, at the same time, also improves child health and academic achievement, enables financial stability for hard-working families, and pumps billions of dollars back into local communities around the country?

You’d probably want to talk about it. You’d probably want as many of your friends, family and community to know about this amazing resource. 

That’s exactly why United Way, our community partners, and thousands of volunteers each year take action to connect millions of people to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). In fact, just last tax season, United Way of Pierce County, through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, helped connect local people to $428 million in tax refunds – money coming right back into our community. And that’s why we advocate to strengthen and expand the EITC for working families and individuals. 

Simply put, the Earned Income Tax Credit helps lower-wage working families keep more of what they earn.  Research finds that the EITC encourages work, reduces poverty and leads to long-term gains in child health and academic success. Together with the Child Tax Credit (CTC), another essential credit that helps offset the cost of raising children, the credits lifted more than 9 million people – 5 million of them children -- out of poverty in 2013. The credits also help 22 million lower-income Americans have further financial stability.

Knowing this, what would you do if you realized that some key features of the EITC and CTC are set to expire soon, and that, without people like you taking action, thousands of our community members could fall back into poverty?

We hope you’d take action.

There are three important ways you can take action this EITC Awareness Day – January 30, 2015.

1)  Advocate: Send a message toyour Members of Congress letting them know how important the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit are in our community.  It’s easy! Simply read the letter (personalize it if you wish), enter your information, and press send.  That’s it!

2)  Spread the word: Tell your friends and family about the success of the EITC & Child Tax Credit.  Tweet it, post it, put a sign in your yard, a sticker on your car, or a tattoo on your arm. Why not be creative? The tax credits could mean hundreds or thousands of dollars in the pockets of people you care about. Use #EITC, #EITCDay, and #LIVEUNITED.

3)  Connect people to the credits through free online tax preparation at MyFreeTaxes.com. Share the link and individuals or families earning $60,000 or less in 2014 can file their state and local taxes for free online.  Those who may want free in-person assistance can call 2-1-1 to find their nearest Volunteer Income Tax Assistance site.


Thanks for taking action – because change doesn’t happen without you.