U.S. News recently ranked Washington the sixth-best state overall, based on healthcare, economy, quality of life and other factors. However, a recent state report about families, communities and schools in each of Washington’s 39 counties provides a more nuanced — and more concerning — glimpse at life in the Evergreen State.
Researchers found that Washington residents’ prospects vary dramatically, depending upon where they live, with people in wealthy places like San Juan County faring far better than their counterparts in impoverished places like Yakima County.
While there are some bright spots, like brisk home sales and safe schools, Pacific County — and the 19th Legislative District as a whole — are doing poorly in many areas, including several that disproportionately affect children and young adults.
Profiling Washington counties
In December, the Department of Health and Human Services released profiles designed to help county public health and substance abuse experts identify local trends that could put youth at risk of using alcohol, tobacco and drugs. The reports use state and federal data to measure the overall health, stability and prosperity of each county in a variety of ways.
The profiles use data from 2012 to 2016 to create five-year averages and standardized rates (rather than raw numbers). That makes it easier to compare counties that are very different from one another. They also include a special scoring system that shows how each county compares to other similar counties. Pacific County is grouped with Clallam, Cowlitz, Grays Harbor, Island, Jefferson, Lewis, Mason, San Juan, Skagit and Wahkiakum counties for purposes of comparison.
The researchers left it to local professionals to decide what conclusions to draw from the data, and in some cases, the study findings posed more questions than they answered. For example, Pacific County has low arrest rates, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t much crime here. It could mean authorities are dealing with people who commit crimes in other ways, such as referring them to mental health or treatment facilities. It could also mean law enforcement police here don’t go after bad guys as aggressively as they do elsewhere in the state.
That said, there were some findings that were clearly bad news.
Bad new for babies
With the second-highest rate of underweight infants in the state, Pacific County is a tough place to be a baby. While an average of 63 of every 1,000 Washington babies have a low birth weight, the rate here is 76 per 1,000. Babies are much more likely to get a healthy start in San Juan County, where only 39 of every 1,000 babies have low birth weights.
Wahkiakum and Pacific counties have the second and third-highest rates of infant mortality, respectively. Statewide, about 450 of every 100,000 babies under age 1 die each year. But in Pacific County, the rate is nearly 818. The group of counties similar to Pacific had by far the highest mortality rates.
Pacific County ranks fourth in both number of kids on welfare, and number of child neglect and abuse referrals. The state rate is about 33 referrals annually for every 1,000 kids. But here, the rate is 59 per 1,000.
The county also has the eighth-highest number of children hospitalized for injuries and accidents, with about seven times as many of these hospitalizations as similar counties. Women are also hospitalized for injuries and accidents at a higher-than average level.
With 6.19 births per 1,000 school-aged mothers, Pacific County has nearly twice the state’s average number of teen pregnancies. However, that rate pales in comparison to that of Adams County, where 12 out of every 1,000 adolescent girls will have a baby.
We’re No. 1. Sort of.
Pacific County residents like their vices. The county has the third-highest ratio of alcohol licenses to residents, with about 4.6 for every 1,000 people. That’s more than twice the state average. Like many other rural counties, Pacific also has a higher-than-average number of tobacco licenses.
The study hinted at the harm caused by substance abuse. On average, 34 percent of the state’s traffic fatalities are alcohol-related. But between 2012 and 2016, 50 percent of traffic deaths here involved alcohol.
Cowlitz, Grays Harbor, Wahkiakum and Pacific counties were all in the top 10 for number of adults receiving state-funded alcohol or drug services. However, the statistics are even more striking when it comes to kids. On average, about 10 out of every 1,000 adolescents in Washington are enrolled in state-funded substance abuse programs. But even though very few kids are arrested on drug and alcohol charges here, almost 26 of every 1,000 Pacific County adolescents are in some type of treatment — the highest rate in the state.
Scott Jacot, the Pacific and Wahkiakum County Juvenile Court Administrator, said that statistic is not as bad as it sounds. The county has a diversion program that allows young people facing alcohol or marijuana possession charges to sign a contract that refers them to drug and alcohol treatment programs. Kids who successfully complete their contracts don’t have charges filed against them.
“Another reason could be that we have such a highly effective and interactive drug and alcohol treatment provider for youth in Pacific County,” Jacot said. The agency, True North, places counselors in each of the county’s high schools. Jacot said the counselors frequently interact with students, and use an effective prevention program. Such programs “contribute to a showing of low arrest rates, yet high in ratings of providing a service under a state funded program,” Jacot said.
Overall, Pacific County kids have underwhelming standardized test scores. In terms of number of kids in fourth, seventh and 10th grades failing at least one test, the county generally ranked in the bottom third. It could be because many local kids have a lot of challenges outside of school. Lewis, Grays Harbor and Pacific counties, all part of Legislative District 19, are in the top ten for number of kids who are eligible for free lunch, and number of people receiving food stamps. Pacific also has a disproportionate number of people in the prison system. While 506 of every 100,000 people are locked up statewide, almost 745 per 100,000 Pacific County residents are incarcerated.
To get a sense of how many kids are dropping out of school, researchers tracked the progress of one “cohort” of kids for several years. Around 12 percent of them dropped out before graduation statewide, but in Pacific County, 20 percent did. The county also has the sixth-lowest rate of on-time graduation.
The lack of a diploma, paired with a sluggish local economy and other factors can hurt kids once they leave school. Pacific County has the fifth-highest rate of unemployed people over 16. Cowlitz, Lewis, Grays Harbor and Wahkiakum counties were also among the counties with the worst employment rates.
What local schools and families do well
While local schools are lagging academically, they are generally very safe and provide overall positive learning environments. The study found very low numbers of teens being arrested for drug, alcohol, property and violent crimes, and few serious vandalism problems. Schools here have very few violent and weapon-related incidents compared to other parts of the state, and have lower-than-average numbers of unexcused absences.
Despite high poverty levels, Pacific County families appear to be more stable than those in many other parts of the state. In divorce-happy Thurston County, there are about seven divorces for every 1,000 people in an average year. In Pacific County however, the rate is about three divorces per 1,000, giving it the second-lowest divorce rate after Whitman County.
While Pacific County has high infant mortality and adult suicide rates, kids between 1 and 17 seem to be doing better. It has the seventh-lowest child mortality rate, of about 12 deaths for every 100,000 children. In Columbia County, the deadliest place in Washington for kids, roughly 80 of every 100,000 children die. Pacific, Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties also had among the lowest numbers of kids between 10 and 17 who attempted or committed suicide.
Pacific County excelled in two other areas where many rural counties struggled: engagement in the political process, and real estate.
On average, about 74 percent of adults in Washington are registered to vote, but in Pacific County, nearly 98 percent are registered. People here also vote more reliably than residents of some other counties. Statewide, about 51 percent of registered voters actually vote in any given election. Here, about 57 percent vote.
The county also has the sixth-best rate for both sales of existing homes and construction of new homes. On average, a little over 14 homes per 1,000 people sell annually in Washington. In Pacific, the rate is about 19 homes per 1,000 people. Statewide, there are about two building permits per every 1,000 people, but in Pacific, the rate is nearly five permits per thousand.