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Shawn Vestal: Fighting poverty or fighting the poor?

Shawn Vestal

Twelve years ago, Spokane seemed to be on the cusp of a war on poverty.

In April 2002, the health district produced its first comprehensive report on the issue, showing that the city fared worse than the rest of the state on just about every measure. The report came at a time when many were talking about concrete ways of trying to combat poverty, as part an overall strategy to improve the community’s health. Not long after the report, Spokane Mayor John Powers convened a summit intended to put poverty into the crosshairs.

Powers, the city’s first strong mayor, cast his One Spokane program as a long-overdue response to a long-ignored problem: “People have told me, ‘It’s too big, don’t touch it.’ I say, how long can you ignore the problem?” Powers told The Spokesman-Review at the time.

Unfortunately, not ignoring isn’t the same as doing something. The One Spokane effort – intended to create a new framework for fighting poverty, and pledging to seek tangible results – turned out to be one of those high-profile, genteel, “poverty-fighting” affairs, long on talk and presentations and fancy receptions and short on concrete action.

At the time of the summit, the poverty rate in the city of Spokane was nearly 14 percent.

Today, it’s nearly 19 percent.

More of us are poor, relative to the rest of the community, than a dozen years ago. According to the latest census surveys, more than 38,000 people live below the federal poverty line in the city. That’s 8,000 more than in the year 2000, an increase of 21 percent.

And a dozen years ago, remember, people were acting like this was a big damn deal. Dr. Kim Thorburn, then the county’s health officer, called it “not acceptable.” Bill Robinson, the popular and energetic president of Whitworth at the time, called it “horrible and reprehensible” and urged local colleges to use their “moral influence” to try and address it.

Can you remember the last time you heard a major local leader cast poverty as a moral obligation for the wider community? These days, we reserve our moral critiques for the poor themselves.

Torney Smith, administrator for the Spokane Regional Health District, was among those involved in the communitywide discussions at the time. He recalls it as a moment of particular promise, because so many were involved in asking: “How do we come together and really address poverty as a community? The business community was involved. The faith community was involved … For all of us: What do we do?”

Much of that energy came from the collaboration assembled around the Health Improvement Partnership, which has since become Community-Minded Enterprises.

Smith doesn’t fault Powers for what happened next. But when the political world got its mitts on the issue, everything changed. For one thing, it entered the arena of contention – where it developed opponents.

Others were presciently skeptical early on, like Councilman Steve Eugster: “It’s good that people become more cognizant of the level of poverty in Spokane, but I’ve been around the block enough to know that talking about something doesn’t get it done.”

Some fledgling community programs were taken under the wing of City Hall, where they withered, Smith said.

“All of the momentum that had been gained through HIP dissolved,” he said.

Some positive steps did emerge. The city funded Project Access, a network of doctors and others working to ensure health care for the poor and uninsured. Project Access leads one of the more creative efforts underway now in Spokane – the Hot Spotters collaboration, in which members of various agencies try to identify people who are especially frequent users of hospital and emergency services, and to take extraordinary steps to intervene in their lives and get them help.

Smith also pointed to other efforts moving forward, such as the effort to battle the city’s dropout rate, Priority Spokane.

It’s easy to pick on the unproductive efforts of yesteryear. But One Spokane tells us something about poverty and politics. Poverty is a steady, grindingly constant problem. Periodically, political leaders decide to get energized about it – to “do something” about it. A lot of people want to see poverty as something that can be fixed, once, and forgotten, and they become frustrated when that doesn’t happen – and so they turn on the poor themselves.

Hostility toward the poor – mean-spirited, self-satisfied and ignorant – flourishes, and it results in self-fulfilling prophecies. It feeds and fosters poverty.

The One Spokane project had a noble goal. If it can be criticized for being all talk, it’s worth noting that we don’t even do much of that anymore.

It revealed the weakness of our one-ness. Everyone may say they want to do something about poverty, but “we are not at all One Spokane in terms of solutions,” Smith said.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.