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Originally published March 24, 2009 at 5:00 PM | Page modified March 24, 2009 at 5:03 PM

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Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

Now's not the time to abandon state's "squeeze generation"

The recession, a University of Washington study warns, could push 40,000 more children statewide into poverty. State lawmakers wrestling with a $9 billion deficit ought to keep in mind that being poor comes with its own price tag. Poor children cost Washington's economy billions annually.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

"I am a success story," boomed the voice of Willette Harris, a young Seattle woman with a college degree in Computer Science, minor in Mathematics, plus a job as a software engineer for Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco.

That was Harris' opening line, her closing and a refrain she returned to frequently during the annual fundraising breakfast for Technology Access Foundation (TAF), a local nonprofit operating in schools preparing at-risk students for careers in business, technology and the sciences.

Looking across the packed ballroom, I spied members of the Mount Baker Community Club, known for its annual scholarship awards, an idea launched 25 years ago around someone's kitchen table.

A decade ago, I wrote about one of their scholarship recipients, Cymetra Williams, then a Franklin High School track star with a 3.0 grade-point average and a mother and father both dead of AIDS. Over the years, Williams has sprinted toward success like Usain Bolt doing the 100-meter dash, earning degrees from College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts and Columbia University in New York.

Thank goodness for TAF and the Mount Baker neighbors. As the state Legislature addresses a $9 billion deficit by carving up education and social-service budgets, these organizations are able to catch some kids before they hit the ground.

According to a University of Washington study, 40,000 more children will slide into poverty next year if food-stamp programs, child-care subsidies and public-education budgets aren't protected.

This places us in a seminal moment. The recession will either be the reason we blame for losing ground in our battle to protect children or the moment we rise to the occasion.

Young people helped by TAF and Mount Baker's residents are part of the "squeeze generation," a term emanating from Washington, D.C., where scholars and economists just finished up the Color of Wealth Summit, examining income disparities among race. The squeeze generation are the first in their families to attend college. They battle the racial disparities that kept their parents from achieving financial security, while at the same time laying the groundwork for their own children's security.

The battle is an uphill one, with the distance between the poor and the rest of us continuing to grow.

Sadly, poverty falls more heavily on children of color. The poverty rate for Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander children in Washington is 39 percent. For black children, it is 34 percent; it's 30 percent for Latino children and 32 percent for American Indian children. Both white and Asian children have a poverty rate of 10 percent.

I don't mean to launch a quixotic mission here, but the Legislature should be warned to spend what it takes to avoid losing ground when it comes to children. This isn't the budget cycle for expansions or new dreams. It is the time for the basics — food, shelter, medical checkups and an opportunity for every child to emerge from public school prepared to navigate a global, highly literate and technical economy.

TAF and the folks in Mount Baker show that when you throw out a lifeline, young people grab it and make a way out of no way. The least the rest of us can do is help them past the roadblocks.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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