King County officials and panelists emphasized the importance of fairness and equal opportunities for people of all colors and incomes during a town hall-style meeting that drew a packed-room audience.
The County Council organized the March 24 meeting at Kent Senior Activity Center to discuss the county’s new Equity and Social Justice Initiative. It’s aimed at eliminating what officials said are inequities in education, healthcare, housing and economic opportunities – all of which can impact the health and even life expectancies of people.
“The problem is there is a growing gap between the rich and the poor in our community,” said County Councilwoman Julia Patterson.
Patterson told the audience:
• How a child in the south King County area is more than twice as likely to drop out of high school than a child in the east portions of the county.
• That a child of color is six times more likely than a white child to spend time in a state or county correctional facility.
• And that a southeast Seattle resident is four times more likely to die from diabetes than a Mercer Island resident.
Patterson said those figures could change if every King County resident had the same opportunities for quality education, affordable housing, living-wage jobs, basic healthcare, safe neighborhoods and nearby parks.
“Not everyone in the county enjoys the same health,” said panelist James Krieger, a doctor who heads the chronic-disease prevention program for Seattle-King County Public Health Department.
Krieger said the neighborhood where a person grows up and lives impacts the health of that person because of unequal access to healthcare, as well as homes with so much mold and improper ventilation that the physical environment can make a person sick.
Panelist Mike Heinisch, executive director for Kent Youth and Family Services, shared how the Springwood Apartments, a county housing authority project in Kent’s East Hill area, was improved the last several years with the addition of a youth center and a family center where residents can take English classes, computer classes and job-training courses.
“Those facilities have helped,” Heinisch said. “The job-training helps them get jobs, and we have seen better results in high school by the kids.”
Heinisch also gave an example of how his agency reached out to a Somalian woman, the single mother of young twins with diabetes, who had no idea how to manage diabetes because of language barriers. That caused the twins to receive inadequate medication and led to critically low blood sugar levels. But through a Head Start class, the agency set up the woman with an interpreter and she learned how to properly medicate her children.
“If we can remove barriers and people have the same access to education, jobs and healthcare, we can have tremendous power in our community,” Heinisch said.
Officials said the county will watch for inequities in programs such as parks and transportation.
“It’s not about investing more money, but investing more wisely to use money to eliminate disparities,” said Patterson, whose council district includes south King County areas.
More information about the Equity and Social Justice Initiative is available at www.metrokc.gov/exec/equity/Equityreport08.pdf.