Poverty zombies are taking root in Federal Way. The middle-class trees that were planted to provide years of economic fruit and benefit to all who chose to make this city home are struggling to thrive or are gone. Is Federal Way at a tipping point where it will wander for many years in an economic desert?
This city was and still is marketed as a planned community worthy of corporate relocations and entrepreneurial startups. Sadly, not much is happening. At the core of the problem is – us – the community in general.
Many of our leaders have, prior to and post municipal incorporation in 1990, promoted Federal Way as a middle-class oasis on the way up. This was done with the belief that somehow it would become economically diverse and regionally significant by the power of some unknown rapture.
Reality usually bites differently. The city’s overall poverty rate is 12 percent but our schools are dealing with 62 percent of the student population being eligible for federally subsidized lunches. Census statistics for this city show that 26 percent of our adult residents have earned a college degree or higher and this is below the state average.
In December, the council passed its operating budget for 2019-2020. Prior to the authorization vote, the council engaged in a largely non-productive discussion of what “human services” or targeted social needs didn’t get fully funded. It may be good politics and theater but fighting over crumbs does not make a meal.
Is directing more money toward human service needs and at-risk youth-oriented programs, the best path for attracting 21st century jobs and establishing a new middle-class core for this city? Were the priorities being argued about the same priorities we need for reestablishing a middle-class core? No.
Underwriting programs for what often are perceived as human condition problems is more about making publicly-raised issues politically go away by checking the: “I got this done box,” under the guise of, “we are making progress.” The journalist, philosopher and scholar, H. L. Menkin, once stated: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
No matter how many “blue ribbon panels” or “task forces” the mayor creates to study issues, nobody is asking the question: what financial and policy investments are necessary to transition Federal Way into a city that is a desired destination for opportunity, business startups and a relocation choice of middle-class families? Maybe we should study how poverty zombies are multiplying in what continues to be marketed as a middle-class planned community.
At the same time, I do not directly blame our current or past elected officials for the lack of economic growth. City Council members are there by choice and selection by election. They operate as a part-time deliberative body working only with what we give them. Collectively their policy thinking and vision often forget to define best outcomes for residents and the city’s future.
Ultimately, the blame lies with us for this city’s shrinking middle class. Historically, this city’s residents approached funding government with a “what is in it for me” attitude and distrust. Being negative invites failure. Middle-class jobs and residents have been leaving this city and region for years and consequently, the economic foundation is struggling.
This exodus is due in part to economic shifts as well as the feeling that the grass is greener elsewhere. This city shares many of the same concerns with the neighboring cities of Auburn, Des Moines and Kent. Federal Way adds to this mix a history of wanting small as well as passive municipal government and for many years selfishly voted to underfund schools.
Our school district is the vital resource and community catalyst necessary to build and maintain a strong destination city. However, in the world of comparative analysis, it is struggling to be seen as a district with showcase potential, and its successes often go unnoticed. Not funding schools consistently opened the door to the current trend toward poverty.
Adding to that insult, the community’s appearance set by city code ordinances, is below standard in many areas. Properties with junk yard aesthetics invite poverty zombies to take root. We have unwittingly challenged our future and opportunity appeal.
My choosing to use the word “zombie” to describe this city’s slow decent into being overtaken by poverty is not to demean those who are economically less fortunate. They deserve help. Their lives are stressful and laden with difficult choices.
No, the real poverty zombies may in fact be the majority of us who live in the middle. We chose not to invest and be responsible for building a collaborative, imaginative and valued community. This city’s future has been compromised by a legacy of not supporting and promoting community elements that establish value and economic opportunity for the 80 percent who live in the middle.
The families who can reduce the poverty rate within the schools will not come without first, a strong middle-class economy providing quality employment opportunities and second, a competitive educational system. As a city and region, we need to get a spine and challenge ourselves to invest in strategic opportunities supporting an economically diverse middle-class employment base.
Slowly the value of Federal Way being a planned middle-class destination in the south sound is vanishing. Not having a secure and growing economic core will make funding new programs designed to help people in need nearly impossible. We need to be figuring out how to serve a full meal.
Keith Livingston is a longtime Federal Way resident and community observer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.