As the Executive Director of the Statewide Poverty Action Network, I work with many people whose lives could be changed with a little cash help. When people in our listening sessions talk about what they would do with a few hundred dollars, I am always struck by how the needs are on a daily basis. Some people just need to fix a car to get to work. Some have a few dollars behind on rent or a utility bill. Others have a family member who owes a debt.
The constant struggle to meet basic needs shows how big the cracks in our structures are. People may not know the ins and outs of our state policies or that they pay six times more of their income in taxes than the richest Washingtonians – but it is clear to them that the system does. not treat well. Costs are too high, cash is limited, and the services that are supposed to support our communities are complicated, underfunded, and don’t always leave people feeling supported or respected.
The pandemic has only highlighted how our structures are not designed in our favor. Washington’s regressive tax code ensures that the people who earn the least end up paying more of their income in taxes, while the wealthiest people in our state only get richer.
This year, our lawmakers have passed several bills that help address these inequalities, including a historic victory for the many who need a little cash. After 13 years without funding, our legislature fully funded the working families tax credit with a nearly unanimous vote. As of 2023, this credit will put $ 300 to $ 1,200 back in the pockets of people with low and modest incomes, including undocumented migrants and a disproportionate number of our BIPOC neighbors.
Our lawmakers also passed a Big Profits Capital Gains Tax, which finally asks Washington’s richest people to pay their share to invest in child care, education and other community needs. .
After years of having the most regressive tax code in the country, these historic victories prove that we can do things differently in Washington. When we really listen to people’s needs, we can co-create an economy that works for everyone.
People have been asking for these changes for years. The photo on my wall of the original passage of the Working Family Tax Credit is now 13 years old, and we have spent each of those years asking our lawmakers to fund it. Workers are tired of programs that force us to skip steps to get help – complicated processes that are steeped in racial prejudice and a mistrust of the ability of low-income people to make decisions about money .
In contrast, the direct cash assistance provided by the Workplace Families Tax Credit sends a message of confidence that workers know what’s best for their families. People who receive the credit will be able to access money with dignity, without being asked to “prove” how difficult their life is or relive their trauma.
A few hundred dollars can restore a sense of stability as our state recovers from the pandemic. This will mean that thousands of Washington families will not have to be afraid of where their next meal is coming from or how they will survive. This means that our state is moving closer to a tax system that prioritizes justice instead of favoring the ultra-rich.
These are great victories, but the fight is not over yet. The system is still heavily penalized by low-income people: Levels of cash assistance remain low relative to need, and people who benefit from our upside down tax code are working hard to make it so. . They also resist policies that will ask those who can afford it to pay their share. The wealthy few who would pay the new capital gains tax have already challenged it in court, and it hasn’t even been enacted yet.
Yet this year’s milestone successes are a testament to what is possible when our leaders listen. We know that when you really listen to people, it’s not hard to find the right thing to do. Our lawmakers have done so this year, and we hope they will continue to do so as we call for more progress towards economic justice in the years to come.
Marcy Bowers is the executive director of the Statewide Poverty Action Network, which advocates for fair policy solutions for low-income people in Washington.
Read more from the May 5-11, 2021 issue.