By Harry Anderson
We ate a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner last week at the Oystercatcher restaurant in Coupeville.
Chef-owners Joe Scott and Jamie Sastre, who are about to leave us for the wilds of Asheville, N.C., outdid themselves with everything from soup (creamy celery root blended with kale) to salad (local greens with apples, pickled figs and feta) to roast turkey (heritage breed grown in Ephrata with sage stuffing and local braised vegetables) to nuts (pecan tart with sour cream sorbet).
Well worth the $65 per person before wine and we gave thanks that we could afford it!
Meanwhile, elsewhere on our Rock, this was going on: A hundred or more folk gathered at the Coupeville Recreation Hall for the 15th annual Thanksgiving potluck – free! – for those who would otherwise be alone or without (turkey and ham donated; just bring a side dish or dessert).
The Annual North Whidbey Community Thanksgiving Dinner – free! – drew a big mob to the Elks Lodge in Oak Harbor. The all-volunteer Mobile Turkey Unit served 500 home-delivered Thanksgiving dinners – free! – to people in Central and South Whidbey. The Rock’s three food banks – Good Cheer in Bayview, Gifts from the Heart in Coupeville and Help House in Oak Harbor – together passed out groceries to as many as 2,000 people who couldn’t afford to go Thanksgiving shopping.
We hear a lot these days about income inequality and the rise in poverty in our country. But on the Rock it’s easy to avoid noticing it. We don’t have homeless sleeping on our streets. Some people may live in shacks or in their cars, but they do so in the woods, out of sight. Panhandlers have few places to beg for cash.
The latest government estimate says that 9.5 percent of the Rock’s population lives below the federal poverty level.
That’s actually lower than the Washington state average of 13.5 percent. But percentages can be deceiving. Our county’s population is now 79,700. So that means more than 7,500 of us are living in poverty – a big number for a place with low population density.
A couple of other disturbing facts: Almost a third of the children who attend school on Whidbey Island qualify for free or low-cost lunches because of their family’s income level. And, as many as 100 children who attend our local schools have no permanent home address.
Some of them actually camp out in the woods by themselves, according to the people at Ryan’s House on South Whidbey who are helping them. A lot of these kids have fled abusive homes.
Others are from transferred military families who hope to finish school here, but end up without a place to stay.
One reason the Rock’s poverty may go unnoticed is because of the flood of retired folks who move here with money in the bank and secure pensions. (That includes me.)
The Rock’s median household income at $59,328 is slightly higher than the state average. Our median home price at $312,000 is almost $30,000 higher than the state average. People older than 65 represent slightly more than 20 percent of the Rock’s population (13.2 percent statewide).
People younger 18 represent just 19.6 percent of Rock dwellers (23 percent statewide). There are actually fewer people employed in non-farm jobs on the Rock now than there were several years go.
What does this add up to? On the whole, we’re older and slightly better off than the rest of the state. But many people on the Rock – particularly the young – struggle and often barely make it.
It’s great that we have a wonderful tradition of generosity and helping each other on this island. I imagine that goes back to farmers helping each other build barns or harvest crops. Maybe it even goes back to those Salish chiefs who shared their bounty with everyone at a potlatch.
But, beneath those generous traditions, something troubling seems to be happening these days in our corner of paradise.
n Harry Anderson is resident of Coupeville and former journalist. His column “Rockin’ a Hard Place” will appear monthly in The Whidbey Examiner.