When I think of the Upper Valley, the first thing that comes to mind is the economic miracle that is the Bavarian Village of Leavenworth, with multi-million dollar homes, busloads of tourists, Oktoberfest and businesses full of shoppers.

That perspective, I discovered, reflects a blissful ignorance of the extensive poverty that exists and the terrible human costs that result.

Rufus Woods

Rufus Woods

Publisher emeritus

I was flabbergasted to discover that fully half of the people who live in the service area of Cascade Medical Center are living at or below the federal poverty rate or are classified as the working poor.

In other words, behind the facade of financial success is the hidden underbelly of families, kids and seniors struggling to survive on a day-to-day basis with minimal transportation options, skyrocketing housing costs and limited job opportunities.

Can we view this more nuanced reality with a sense of empathy and find ways to help those most in need in our communities?

I believe we can and we should.

U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier, a pediatrician, recently held a virtual town hall for Upper Valley residents to discuss the challenges that low-income people are facing and how organizations like the medical center, school district and the nonprofit social service agency Upper Valley MEND are responding to these challenges.

The underlying theme was social determinants of health, which refers to the reality that health and well-being is often determined by one’s ZIP code, as Schrier put it.

Diane Blake, the chief executive officer of Cascade Medical Center, said the latest community health survey shows the poverty rate is about 50 percent in the area served by the hospital, which stretches from the top of Blewett and Stevens passes to Leavenworth. She described the size of the problem as “astounding.”

Her perspective was confirmed by Bob Mark, the manager of the Upper Valley MEND’s food bank. He said the nonprofit is finding that the challenges people face are interconnected and layered.

As an example, one individual who is living in his car and struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, needed help to get his car repaired and ways to access mental health services. Solving one issue doesn’t really help.

Flor Murguia West, the English language learner’s specialist in the Cascade School District, said 44 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced lunches. They have students in mansions and students in pickers’ cabins, she said. Kids from immigrant families have the additional burden of often not feeling a sense of belonging in the community.

Navigating the health care system is daunting for many immigrants in our midst, she said.

Schrier pointed out that the stresses of poverty translate to lower academic performance for students and worse health outcomes.

Another profound issue in the valley is lack of accessibility to child care.

According to the health survey (which was taken pre-pandemic) the valley has licensed day care for only about 10-13 percent of the kids. As community member and parent Rachel Hansen said, perhaps half of the day care facilities have closed since that survey was taken.

Perhaps the greatest challenge we face is changing the way we think about poverty. Since the 1980s, as Schrier correctly acknowledged, lawmakers have operated under the philosophy that we can improve the situation by punishing the poor.

Congress recently took a different approach with the American Rescue Plan, which focuses on providing some financial cushion for families in poverty through a refundable tax credit.

This shift in philosophy makes intuitive sense to me. Some additional help from the government is needed. At the same time, we can and should find ways to help struggling families in our communities.

A strong dose of empathy and understanding what people who are poor face can help us unlock resources to provide needed local assistance. The conversation that Schrier started is an excellent place to start. It’s an issue for all of us.

Rufus Woods is the publisher emeritus of The Wenatchee World. He may be reached at rwoods@wenatcheeworld.com or 509-665-1162.