OPINION: Lawmakers Must Focus on Building a Just and Inclusive Economy for Our State

by Jennifer Tran and Misha Werschkul, Washington State Budget & Policy Center

(This piece was originally published in longer form on the Washington State Budget & Policy Center blog.)

Since the first U.S. COVID-19 case was confirmed in Washington State in January, the public health crisis has rapidly evolved into an economic crisis. In recent weeks, we have spoken with many nonprofit and community leaders in our region to find out more about the specific economic needs emerging from this crisis. And we’ve heard the same sentiment over and over: We can’t make the same mistakes of the Great Recession. At that time, lawmakers made deep cuts to public services and community investments, and they increased our state’s reliance on regressive sources of tax revenue. This created continued hardship and growing inequalities for countless people in our communities. 

As we look to our lawmakers to address the economic crisis in a potential special legislative session, it is clear that they must focus on what matters most: protecting the well-being of the people in our state and ensuring that people who have long been excluded from justice don’t face more barriers to opportunity and financial security. Elected officials must use state and local policy to address the structural failures of our economy and systems that have been exposed by this crisis.

The health of our economy is dependent on the health and economic well-being of our people. And in order to effectively guide Washington through this economic recovery, state policymakers should follow these principles:

Lead with equity. 

The current health and economic crisis has put into sharp focus the inequities in our state created by past and persistent policy and budget decisions. The recovery efforts must center communities experiencing the greatest health and economic impacts. That includes people with low incomes, immigrants, undocumented workers, communities of color, tribal nations, people with disabilities, rural communities, young workers, older adults, women, domestic violence survivors, and trans and nonbinary people. 

So many impacted communities are already working in innovative and resourceful ways to meet community needs, and policymakers must include them in decision-making processes and prioritize resources to these communities first. Without an inclusive and intentional response, the current health and economic crisis will only continue to compound existing inequities.

Provide immediate, impactful, and sustained relief in the form of direct cash assistance and bolstering public services. 

Hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians have been severely impacted by sudden job loss, income reductions, the loss of employer-sponsored health coverage, and other forms of financial devastation. Many who were already struggling to make ends meet before the pandemic’s onset face the increasingly profound challenges of paying for housing, putting food on the table, and meeting other basic needs. To prevent the economic downturn from being deeper and longer than necessary, leaders must deliver immediate, direct, and sustained relief to Washingtonians most in need, including direct cash assistance. In many cases, this will require thinking beyond our existing services and systems. 

Lawmakers can’t simply focus on delaying hardship for the short-term, but instead they must truly position all Washingtonians to thrive over the long-term.

Make permanent fixes to underlying structural failures. 

The pandemic has surfaced and elevated the ways in which our state systems were structured to benefit certain groups while disadvantaging others even before the public health crisis began. Gaps in wealth, opportunity, and prosperity are getting worse. We cannot afford to go back to the status quo of regressive and inequitable systems. Lawmakers must make bold, permanent structural changes — particularly to our broken tax code that over-relies on low- and middle-income households to fund the investments that benefit us all. Big, visionary solutions — not short-term, incremental changes — are the only way to advance an equitable recovery and to prepare our state for future crises.

Implement policy responses rooted in trust and dignity, not paternalism. 

As Washingtonians turn to public resources for critical financial support, they’re encountering the many barriers that have been built into our anti-poverty policies and programs for decades. Strict eligibility and work requirements, onerous application processes, and a lack of information in languages other than English perpetuate inequities and restrict access to vital support, especially for communities of color and immigrant communities. 

Because our safety net is only effective if communities can access it, Washington State’s policy response must prioritize implementation that is primarily automatic, low-barrier, and inclusive. The same is true for community and nonprofit organizations, tribal nations, and small businesses that are also seeking support — relief to these entities needs to be accessible and free from red tape.

Reject a scarcity mindset: There is enough wealth in our state to invest in our people. 

Even in this time of economic crisis, our state is home to individuals with massive wealth and profitable corporations. We have the resources to preserve community investments while also making new investments that boost Washington’s economic recovery and mitigate impacts on those most impacted by COVID-19. Ensuring we have revenue to fund the public services that benefit us all will require adopting sustainable and equitable new funding sources. It’s time to eliminate wasteful tax breaks for large corporations and impose new taxes on the richest households who have long been given a special deal at the expense of people with low and middle incomes.

Washingtonians literally cannot afford to just wait out this crisis. This moment demands we join together and call for policies that put people and communities first. It will take courage and creativity — every budget and policy choice lawmakers make is an opportunity to build a more just and inclusive future for our state. 

Jennifer Tran is the research and policy director and Misha Werschkul is the executive director of the Washington State Budget & Policy Center, an organization that works to advance the economic well-being of people in Washington. Budget & Policy Center staff members Margaret Babayan, Liz Olson, Andy Nicholas, Emily Vyhnanek, and Evan Walker also contributed to this piece.