OPINION: Washington’s Children Shouldn’t Have to Relive Our Past Mistakes

by Dr. Stephan Blanford and Misha Werschkul

Since the pandemic’s onset, Washington families have experienced a rolling crisis in jobs, hunger, health, and education. The prospect of eviction hangs over far too many. Food insecurity has skyrocketed. Child care facilities have closed, many of them permanently. And a rocky transition to remote learning is now impeding students’ educational progress. The acute stress on children and families may harm kids’ health, their education, and their ability to earn a living.

While families across Washington state have all experienced these challenges, they’re felt most sharply by Black, Latino/a, and other families of color: those who have faced occupational segregation, employment discrimination, and underinvestment in majority Black and Brown schools and communities. 

State-level data released Dec. 14 as part of Kids, Families and COVID-19: Pandemic Pain Points and a Roadmap for Recovery, a 50-state report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, shows that Washington is doing better compared with other states overall. 

Yet Black, Latino/a, and “Other” households of color — a category, which due to data limitations, lumps together Native American, multiracial, Pacific Islander, and Native Hawaiian families, masking important differences across diverse groups of people — have reported higher rates of food insecurity. These same households are disproportionately likely to be uncertain about making their next rent or mortgage payment. 

Latino/a and “Other” households of color have been much more likely than their neighbors to lack health coverage. And Black and “Other” households of color have been more likely to report feeling down, depressed, or hopeless both here in Washington and nationwide.

As parents, we see how the pandemic is harming the well-being of our kids, their friends, and the kids of our friends, coworkers, and neighbors. 

And as longtime experts in policy issues, we also see that we’ve been here before — so we know what not to do. 

In the depths of the Great Recession, state lawmakers slashed support for kids and families. Knee-jerk cuts curtailed cash and food assistance. Affordable child care was cut. And other cuts undermined Washington state’s K-12 and higher education systems. 

These decisions pushed thousands of kids off the path of opportunity. While school enrollment kept rising, the number of K-12 teachers dropped. Child poverty and household hunger spiked. And many families — especially those who are Black — never fully recovered.

Today, it makes no more sense to cut health care in response to a pandemic. Or economic assistance when jobs are scarce. Repeating this approach would deepen the harm and slow the eventual economic recovery. 

Instead, state and federal lawmakers must support families to meet their basic needs by supplying vital income, health, housing, and food assistance. They need to ensure that child care providers can reopen safely and serve the children of low-wage workers. And they must expand access to the technology and other supports kids need to learn and grow.

These efforts will require additional federal aid beyond the recent stimulus measure, which included no direct relief to state and local governments. And here in Washington, lawmakers will need to take bold action to raise progressive revenue. To make sure we have the resources needed to invest in families and communities, lawmakers should enact new taxes on our wealthiest residents and on profitable corporations. Lawmakers are taking promising steps in this direction — chiefly House Bill 1496 – 2021-22, which would redirect over $1 billion in new progressive revenue each year to child care, schools, health care, and other public investments. 

Just as rising case counts cause us to redouble our efforts to contain the virus, state and federal lawmakers should mount a massive response to this crisis in opportunity. Their primary methods should involve getting cash and other critical support directly to impacted families, ensuring that child care is available to working parents, and guaranteeing that every student has the support they need to engage in school.

In every area, they need to put racial and ethnic equity first — with thoroughly disaggregated data and thorough listening to diverse communities.

If they do, then our ongoing response to the coronavirus can save lives — and support kids and families of all races to thrive, learn, and grow after the pandemic.

Dr. Stephan Blanford is executive director of Children’s Alliance and a former member of the Seattle School Board; Misha Werschkul is executive director of the Washington State Budget & Policy Center. Together they partner to release data on child and family well-being as KIDS COUNT in Washington (www.kidscountwa.org).

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.

Featured Image: A family attends Skyway’s AfroBite event, Summer of 2020. (Photo: Susan Fried)

Before you move on to the next story …
The South Seattle Emerald is brought to you by Rainmakers. Rainmakers give recurring gifts at any amount. With over 1,000 Rainmakers, the Emerald is truly community-driven local media. Help us keep BIPOC-led media free and accessible. 
If just half of our readers signed up to give $6 a month, we wouldn't have to fundraise for the rest of the year. Small amounts make a difference. 
We cannot do this work without you. Become a Rainmaker today!