PACIFIC COUNTY — Local kids are dealing with a lot of challenges that could make them more likely to use drugs and alcohol, according to the state’s most recent “Risk and Protection” profile for Pacific County.

The report, published by the state Department of Social and Health Services, uses data from a wide range of sources to identify risk-factors that could make local kids more likely to develop substance abuse problems. For most measures, the report includes data from 2006 to 2017. The periodic reports help policy-makers and service providers identify problems and decide how to best use public resources.

Pacific County got a mixed review, compared to the state and a group of similar rural counties that includes Clallam, Cowlitz, Grays Harbor, Island, Jefferson, Lewis, Mason, San Juan, Skagit and Wahkiakum. In some respects, life is getting better here. But the county is doing very poorly in several critical areas, including employment, child welfare and high school graduation.

Easy access to drugs

There’s no getting around it: locals love their booze and cigarettes. Researchers calculated the number of alcohol retail licenses per 1,000 people, and found that Pacific County has outstripped both the state and similar counties for 11 years running. With 84 total licenses in 2017, the county had a rate of about four license per 1,000 residents — roughly double the state average. That’s actually the lowest rate in more than a decade. Pacific County’s liquor-loving ways peaked in 2010, when there were 103 licensed booze retailers.

The number of tobacco licenses per 1,000 is at an 11-year low. In 2017, there were 26 licenses, compared to 57 a decade earlier. However, that rate is still higher than state and similar county rates.

Enduring poverty

In 2017, about 27 of every 100 county residents received food stamps — double the national rate, and well above the state and similar county averages. Rates have been similarly high in previous years.

About 10 of every 100 local children receive Temporary Aid for Needy Families. While the number of kids on welfare has dropped, it’s still about three times the national average and twice the state average.

In 2017, around seven of every 100 people 16 and older were unemployed. Rates were similarly high over the last decade.

The number of children receiving free or reduced lunches hit a 12-year high in 2017, with a rate of 66.7 of every 100 children locally, compared to 53.2 in similar counties and 43.5 statewide.

Persistent addiction problems

Kids learn their habits from the adults in their lives, so researchers study the prevalence of adult antisocial behavior to get a sense of how the kids might turn out.

Over the last few years, the county has had slightly lower-than-average numbers of drug and alcohol-related deaths, but far higher-than-average numbers of people who are enrolled in state-funded drug and alcohol treatment programs. Statewide, 10.6 of every 1,000 people were in state-funded treatment in 2017. Locally, 18.2 of every 1,000 were in treatment. Numbers were similarly high over the last decade. Additionally, the county consistently has a very high number of children, ages 10 to 17, enrolled in state-funded drug and alcohol treatment programs.

Plenty of jailbirds

From 2006 to 2011, the county had a smaller-than-average number of adults in the state prison system. In 2012, the number of locals doing time almost doubled, and it’s been well above average ever since. In 2017, the local incarceration rate jumped again, surpassing that of similar counties for the first time.

The numbers don’t necessarily mean crime is getting worse. The rise coincides with the hire of Deputy Prosecutor Mark McClain, who later became the elected county prosecutor. McClain is markedly more aggressive about prosecuting felonies than his predecessor.

Mothers, babies at risk

For many Pacific County kids, the problems start before they are even born, or soon after. Women here were hospitalized for injuries and accidents at above-average rates in all but one year between 2006 and 2017.

In 2017, two of 171 babies in the county died. That works out to a rate of about 1,170 infant deaths per 100,000 infants, compared to a state rate of 357.4. In recent years, local babies were also more likely to have low birth weights.

In happier news, the death rate for children over one year is significantly lower, and local rates of pregnancy among girls ages 10 to 17 have fallen drastically. In 2006, 12.2 of every 1,000 local girls had babies. In 2017, the rate was just 2.6, compared to a state rate of 2.1. Additionally, while domestic violence remains a serious problem locally, rates have dropped significantly over the last decade. They were below state and similar county rates in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Widespread abuse

The number of accepted child abuse and neglect referrals per 1,000 children gives a sense of how many children are being maltreated. The local rate has risen and fallen, from a high of 81.7 in 2006, to a low of 49.1 in 2011, but it has consistently remained above national, state and similar county averages. In 2017, there 196 documented victims of abuse and neglect, making for a rate of 53.1, compared to a state rate of 27.8. For the first time, the Pacific County rate was slightly lower than that of “Counties Like Us” — but only because that rate spiked.

Struggling students

Students often don’t finish high school due to a lack of familial support or overwhelming problems at home, but dropping out makes it more likely that the cycle of instability and poverty will continue for another generation. That’s why researchers study the number of kids who drop out, both by year, and by “freshman cohort.” Either way, the local dropout rates are pretty grim.

The percentage of kids in any given freshman cohort who drop out has fluctuated, from 41.7 percent in 2006, to 15.4 percent in 2012. In 2017, it was 23.7. In every year but 2012, the rate has been far higher than the state and national rates.

When measured as a percentage of students in grades 9 to 12 who drop out in a given year the dropout rate jumped sharply in 2017, from fewer than five percent, to 9.5 percent, compared to 6.6 in similar counties and 4.4 percent statewide.

At the same time, the percentage of kids graduating on time or on an extended schedule has consistently been below average.

The good news

There are a few areas where the county is improving steadily and others where it consistently shines. One sign of the county’s gradual entry into the modern economy is so-called “net migration”; the number of people who move here, minus the number of people who move away. In the past, the county’s population generally held steady or shrank. That appears to have changed. The biggest recent spikes came in 2014 and 2015, just as the local recreational cannabis industry was getting off the ground. The county gained 239 and 204 new residents, respectively. In 2017, it gained 155 residents. That’s a smaller gain than many other counties made, but still far better than in 2007, when the net migration was -17.

Home sales are at an 11-year high too. Measured as the number of previously-owned homes sold per 1,000 residents, the rate in 2017 was 25, compared to a low of 9.2 in 2008. New home construction has slowed significantly in the last few years, but it’s still above the state and national averages.

While academic achievement rates for local kids are mediocre at best, the data suggests that Pacific County’s schools are generally safe and welcoming. The number of weapons incidents in schools jumped from one in 2016 to five in 2017, but still remains below average. Unexcused absence rates are far below average, as are arrest rates for kids ages 10 to 17.

Natalie St. John is a staff writer for the Chinook Observer. Contact her at 360-642-8181 or

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