A look at life at the bottom end of King County Executive Dow Constantine’s big middle class.

Share story


There’s a wide gulf between a $35,000 household income and a $125,000 one — but can they both be considered in the middle?

That range of incomes comes from a statistic recently used by King County Executive Dow Constantine, and it tells the story of a vanishing middle class: Ninety-five percent of the county’s growth since 2000 has been among households with earnings below or above that range.

In my last column, I looked at a census tract where the median household income is just inside that top figure of $125,000 — it happened to be in Sammamish. I also invited you to guess the tract that’s on the opposite end of that income spectrum, one that just sneaks in above the low figure of $35,000.

If you guessed Kent, you win.

This tract, which is home to about 3,600 people, includes downtown Kent and its immediate vicinity. Here you’ll find the Kent Station shopping center, the ShoWare Center area, the Sounder line’s Kent stop and city hall.

The median household income for this tract is $36,400, according to 2014 Nielsen data — half of households earn more, and half earn less.

While that might seem very low to be categorized as middle income, remember that the $15-an-hour “living” wage, which has caused so much controversy in Seattle, would only pencil out to an income of $30,000 for a full-time job.

Like much of South King County, this is a diverse area — in fact, this tract is “majority minority,” with whites making up less than half the population (41 percent). Hispanics (24 percent) and blacks (17 percent) are the next largest groups.

The real-estate prices here could bring tears to the eyes of any Seattle house hunter, like the 1907 Craftsman listed for $225,000. What would that go for in Ballard?

But if you live here, you’re probably not looking to buy — 3 out of 4 households rent, which is much higher than the county average. A spacious one bedroom in downtown’s historic district is listed for $800.

If you earned the median of $36,400 and rented that apartment, you would be paying about 27 percent of your income — below the threshold for being “rent burdened,” defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development as paying more than 30 percent of income in rent.

The violent-crime rate in Kent — one for every 390 residents in 2013 — is about half that of Seattle.

This census tract might make you put aside your stereotype of suburban lifestyles — it’s more walkable than most of Seattle, with Walk Score ratings ranging from “very walkable” to “walker’s paradise.” You could certainly live here without a car, and about 15 percent of households do — nearly the same as Seattle.

Still, 3 out of 5 drive alone to work, which is pretty standard for King County. But this tract does have higher than average transit use, with 15 percent commuting by public transportation — it’s likely that many of these folks are taking the Sounder to Seattle.

More than one-third of workers are employed in service occupations — nearly three times higher than the county average. Another 12 percent work in administrative support. About 5 percent are in management positions, and a mere 1 percent work in tech.

Just 6 percent of households cross the high-income threshold of $125,000. Still, about 1 out of 5 has an income exceeding $75,000.

But that’s not to minimize the fact that many are struggling here. Thirty percent of households have an income below the poverty level — nearly triple the county average. (Two out of 3 adults in the tract are single, with single mothers making up 18 percent of the households.)

That high rate of poverty is reflected in data on the public schools, which are in the Kent School District. At three schools that in part serve this tract — elementary, middle and high — more than 70 percent of kids receive free or reduced-price meals.

Still, the four-year graduation rate at Kent-Meridian High School is 73 percent. That’s just a tad lower than the statewide average — even if it is light years away from Skyline High School in Sammamish, where 97 percent graduate in four years.

An auspicious start in life. A life that will last on average 4.5 years longer in Sammamish (84.5) as in Kent (80), according to Public Health — Seattle & King County.