Is Pacific County really the poorest county in Washington? Some local officials and citizens say it is.

For at least the past 10 years, this "fact" has been cited with certainty in public meetings and letters to the editor. Often, it is used to argue that we should be grateful for any kind of development that comes our way.

Happily, it is false.

There are a variety of ways to measure a county's economic health and wealth. By no measurement are we last among Washington's 39 counties, though there some troubling low points.

Here are some examples:

? Property values are a major way people decide how wealthy they are. With about $76,000 in property per person, we were 18th out of 39 in 2004, the most recent year for which state statistics are available.

? Average personal income in 2003 was $23,395, 29th in the state.

? A monthly average of 11.5 percent of county residents receive food assistance, 12th in the state.

? About 19 percent receive medical assistance, 16th in the state.

? In any given month, nearly half of counties have a higher rate of unemployment than Pacific.

? About one-third of county households have a net worth less than $10,000, around 24th in the state.

? About 57 percent of public school students in the county receive free or reduced-price meals. This is the 7th highest percentage in the state. In Ocean Beach School District, 68 percent of kids receive free and reduced-price meals - highest in the county but better than at least 40 other districts in Washington. The statewide average is 38 percent.

? About 29.6 percent of Pacific County households report income of less than $20,000 per year. Only five counties have higher percentages of low-earning residents.

So what does it all mean?

Pacific County, like many coastal counties, suffers from a serious gap between the haves and the have-nots. The 2000 federal census showed the Peninsula has the state's widest disparity of incomes in the state. Although there are many here who are comfortably well off, most of the jobs our economy produces do not generate very much income.

The people who don't earn a lot here are disproportionately of child-bearing age. This means we have too many children whose families just scrape by.

Even though we are a long way from poorest in the state, job creation and diversification should be top economic priorities in Pacific County. But far from saying yes to every proposal, our situation calls for moderate steps that foster a business-friendly environment, enhancing and not compromising the attributes that make this such an appealing place to live. Examples include making certain schools and law enforcement are well funded and operated, enforcing zoning laws to enhance property values, working to foster affordable decent housing at all price levels, and working at the state level to make sure that rules and taxes are fair to rural areas.

The first way to begin fixing our problems is to understand and acknowledge reality. Poorest? No way, but we have lots and lots of room for improvement.

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