How many homeless, hungry? Make statistics public

Published in The News Tribune, May 23, 2012

Do you know how many children in Tacoma School District (TSD) schools are homeless?  Or how many people in Pierce County lived without heat or electricity this winter because their power was shut off?

If you don’t, you have lots of company.  And the invisibility of such problems in our community is itself part of the problem.

Last week the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department presented the Board of Health with results of its investigations into the state of families and kids in Pierce County.  Their presentation sheds light on the growing desperation of some of our county’s residents.  As we probably all know, a miserable job market and declining public dollars has had an awful effect on many households.

Those present at the Board of Health’s meeting learned that over the last several years, the number of kids growing up in poverty has increased by a third; so too has the number receiving free and reduced meals in school.  Last year Pierce County’s Emergency Food Network, which oversees 67 county food banks, served 15.5 million meals; 40 percent of these went to kids.

In 2011, over 15,000 homeless families sought help finding housing through a Pierce County call center; of these, the center secured housing for only 171.   Over the last five years, the number of infants and young children sleeping in shelters has doubled from roughly 400 to 800.

It’s easy to blame “politics” and “ideology” for our failure to do more to help our neighbors in need.  But whether in Pierce County or Ohio’s Knox County, we Americans are not stingy, uncaring people.  On average Americans voluntarily give to charity more than twice what those in other rich nations give, and ten times more than do the French.  It’s hard to reconcile our generosity, though, with an acceptance of so much distress in our own backyard.

Here’s where I think we might benefit by mimicking a movement around the world where organizations are bringing attention to problems within their borders by developing indicators of them, establishing goals for reducing and eliminating them, and then making the progress (or lack thereof) toward those goals public.

As one example, the UN’s Millenium Project has developed eight key goals such as eradicating extreme poverty and reducing child mortality that countries and international organizations have agreed to prioritize.  For each, poor countries have developed targets and time frames for reaching them; progress is measured and reported annually.   This strategy is leading international organizations to coordinate their efforts and cooperate with one another in much more productive ways.

Each year 19 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean similarly measure and report on their poor citizen’s access to clean water, plumbing, and electricity; countries then compare their progress in these areas, and learn lessons from one another.  Some US states are similarly developing indicators of their five-year-olds’ “readiness to learn” to ensure that this becomes the statewide priority that it must be.

Health Department presenters also identified problems they knew were growing but couldn’t quantify – homeless kids in our schools and families without heat or electricity, to name two.  Later I called the TSD for the district’s headcount of homeless kids.  I was told that such information requires a public records request.  Tracking the information down at the OSPI website instead, I discovered that last year 1,273 TSD students were homeless, representing a 25 percent increase over the number four years ago.

I then called Tacoma Power to find out how many households had had their electricity shut off.  Once again, this information requires a public records request.

This hard-to-get information should not just be public, it should be closely monitored and openly reported as a key indicator of our community’s health. Publicizing such indicators could help galvanize support for and spur coordination among diverse and at times poorly-coordinated agencies, non-profits and volunteer efforts.

While improving access to such information is surely just a small piece of the answer to improving the lives of people in our community, until the economy and our public finances improve, we don’t have many options.  Making such problems more visible will also encourage citizens to recognize the role that personal generosity can play in solving the plight of some in our own backyard.