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Suburban poverty vs. language barriers in Federal Way

The Westway area, located off 21st Avenue SW near SW Campus Drive, is one of Federal Way
The Westway area, located off 21st Avenue SW near SW Campus Drive, is one of Federal Way's low-income neighborhoods. Habitat for Humanity has rehabbed more than 36 homes in the neighborhood.
— image credit: Andy Hobbs/Federal Way Mirror

Tatyana Koshevaya spoke no English when she moved to the United States.

Nearly 22 years later, Koshevaya believes that immigrants who want to get ahead and rise above poverty - and find employment - must learn the American culture and language.

“If you don’t speak English,” she said, “who’s going to hire you?”

Koshevaya was a refugee from Russia who arrived in the U.S. with aspirations of starting a cleaning business. A fellow Russian-American taught her English, including how to read the labels of cleaning supplies.

From there, Koshevaya honed her English and attended school. As her English improved, so did her job prospects. A stint as an interpreter helped boost her confidence, and she felt as though she could finally communicate. However, her thick Russian accent stood in the way of a so-called “mainstream” office job — so she worked harder.

“When I started to learn more English and went to college, I started getting other jobs,” said Koshevaya, co-owner of Little Russia Bistro in Federal Way, regarding the opportunities that came with better communication. “It’s a legitimate barrier for immigrants.”

Suburban poverty has increased dramatically in South King County over the past decade as residents search for cheaper rent outside of Seattle. The communication barrier is another reason why immigrants and refugees struggle. Aside from economics, immigrants move to South King County to live among others who share their language and culture.

Koshevaya is also a social worker who specializes in job and housing placement for Eastern European immigrants. Not all immigrants share a desire for upward social mobility. Government assistance can contribute to complacency, she said. For some immigrants, living conditions in the U.S. are better than what they came from.

“It’s a luxury. They would have never had that house,” she said, generalizing the attitude of some immigrants who see low-income areas in the U.S. as a step up. “They think, ‘wow, I’m in heaven.’ To them, they’re not poor.”

Federal Way is one of the most linguistically diverse suburbs. Federal Way Public Schools reports that 112 languages are represented among the student population. After English, the most common languages are Spanish, Korean, Russian and Ukrainian, according to a 2012 city study titled “Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing.”

The report cites that 9 percent of Federal Way households are “linguistically isolated,” meaning that all members over age 14 in those households speak no English.

Without English, immigrants face more difficulty with everyday life tasks, legal matters and job training.

The Multi-Service Center (MSC), based in Federal Way, is South King County’s largest social service agency. In 2012, MSC served more than 53,000 people with housing, education and more. The goal is to help low-income residents achieve self-sufficiency.

One area where MSC has assisted immigrants is through “workplace literacy.” With this program, the agency is hired by local companies to train employees in their native languages. As a result, their English improves and more employees keep their jobs as they strive for self-sufficiency.

Programs at the state level that address language barriers include the Transitional Bilingual Instruction Program, which focuses on English Language Learners (ELL) in public schools.

At the local level, Federal Way Public Schools has implemented a dual language program at Sunnycrest Elementary School, where more than 60 percent of the 530 students speak Spanish, and more than 80 percent are on a free/reduced lunch plan. In the program, Sunnycrest students are taught in English half the day and in Spanish for the other half.

FYI: Suburban poverty

The Brookings Institution recently released a book titled “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America.” The book cites South King County as a poster child for suburban poverty and the changing demographics of suburbs, which at one time were a bastion of affluence.

Moreover, the book addresses the outdated funding policies that focus on inner-city neighborhoods and sparsely populated rural areas. That funding model is based on the perception created in the 1960s when President Lyndon Johnson helped spearhead the “war on poverty.” The book argues that today’s allocation of federal resources fails to adequately serve the current economic hardships and realities of poor people who live in the suburbs.

The book also calls for more collaboration among regional entities to address the poverty issue. One success story is the Road Map Project, in which seven school districts strive to close the achievement gap for students in more than 261 schools.

Affordable housing

In South King County suburbs, renters pay a higher share of income toward housing when compared to Seattle, according to the American Community Survey statistics based on the 2010 Census.

In Federal Way, roughly 47 percent of residents pay 35 percent or more of their household income toward rent. In Kent, nearly 50 percent of households pay 35 percent of their income or higher. However, in Seattle, about 39 percent of residents pay 35 percent or more of their household income toward rent.

By the numbers

Percentage change in median household income and population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau

• Federal Way: $49,278 in 1999 (pop. 83,259) vs. $53,716 in 2010 (pop. 89,306).

• Auburn: $39,208 in 1999 (pop. 40,314) vs. $57,642 in 2010 (pop. 70,180).

• Kent: $46,046 in 1999 (pop. 79,524) vs. $48,688 in 2010 (pop. 92,411). Note that with an annexation in 2012, the population is about 123,000.

• Renton: $45,820 in 1999 (pop. 50,052) vs. $61,819 in 2010 (pop. 90,927).

Percentage of families below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau

• Federal Way: 6.9 percent in 1999 (pop. 83,259) vs. 9.5 percent in 2010 (pop. 89,306).

• Auburn: 10.2 percent in 1999 (pop. 40,314) vs. 11.9 percent in 2010 (pop. 70,180).

• Kent: 8.7 percent in 1999 (pop. 79,524) vs. 23.1 percent in 2010 (pop. 92,411). Note that with an annexation in 2012, the population is about 123,000.

• Renton: 7 percent in 1999 (pop. 50,052) vs. 10.2 percent in 2010 (pop. 90,927).

Percentage of students on free and reduced lunch, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction

• Federal Way: 28.8 percent in 2000 vs. 56.3 percent in 2012 (total enrollment: 22,017 students)

• Auburn: 30.1 percent in 2000 vs. 53.6 percent in 2012 (total enrollment: 14,683 students)

• Kent: 26.5 percent in 2000 vs. 51.2 percent in 2012 (total enrollment 27,318 students)

• Renton: 31.4 percent in 2000 vs. 54.4 percent in 2012 (total enrollment: 16,979 students)

• Tukwila: 58.2 percent in 2000 vs. 77.2 percent in 2012 (total enrollment: 3,429 students)

• Seattle: 40.2 percent in 2000 vs. 43.2 percent in 2012 (total enrollment: 50,019 students)

• Washington state: 31.2 percent in 2000 vs. 45.5 percent in 2012 (total statewide enrollment: 1,043,031 students)

 

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