Group of protestors wait with signs that read "Straight Outta I-200 to I-1000" during the 2018 Jobs and Justice March in Seattle, WA.

OPINION: Representation Matters

Why an economic recovery agenda shaped by those who have relied on government programs prioritizes investing in people

by Senator Joe Nguyen, 34th Legislative District

The headlines after several of us first-term legislators took office in 2019 proclaimed we were the “most diverse in state history,” and we should all be proud that we broke that record again after last year’s election. What hasn’t made the headlines, however, is the power of the advocacy we’ve witnessed from these legislators in conversations about how we should respond to the dire need felt by people in our communities. 

That powerful advocacy is what’s responsible for the progress we’ve made this session in crafting a budget that reflects our values. Budget policy isn’t academic; the decisions we make about how to spend the state’s resources can be the difference between whether someone eats or starves, or whether they keep a roof over their head or end up homeless during a global pandemic. 

Just over a year ago, we began pushing back against old, conventional wisdom on government’s response in times of an economic crisis — the fallacies of “tighten our belts” and “trim the fat” during a recession. Despite the pandemic lasting far longer than any of us imagined in those early days, we’ve managed to resist the toxic ideology of austerity here in Washington state. Instead, we’re emerging from this year’s legislative session with historic investments in the programs that support people in times of crisis.

That paradigm shift will make a huge difference to people who are still unemployed or struggling to make ends meet: Instead of cutting programs people rely on, we’ve increased funding for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) by 15%, finally funded the Working Families Tax Credit to the tune of $268 million, and allocated nearly a billion dollars in federal funding to rental relief and other supports to keep people housed. 

Some of these investments, like the Working Families Tax Credit, are long-time progressive priorities that we’re scaling up to meet the dire need of our communities. Others, like the emergency rental assistance program, are unique to this current crisis but will help address systemic inequities that left so many Washingtonians so vulnerable at the start of the pandemic. Here’s what all of the investments the state is making have in common: They had champions in the legislature who understand through firsthand experience what a difference a little bit of help from your community in a time of crisis can make. 

I know this to be true because it’s my family’s story: After my parents fled Vietnam as refugees and my father was rendered quadraplegic by a car accident in my early childhood, we were on the brink of financial disaster. It’s only because of social safety net programs like TANF that my family stayed housed and fed, and I’m only one of countless Americans who wouldn’t have had the chance to succeed without government assistance. 

So when well-intentioned legislators were worrying about the size of our spending during budget negotiations, stories like mine helped my colleagues understand that our bigger concern must be the scale of the tragedy we could prevent by investing in people. Because that’s what the social safety net is; it’s not a handout or charity, it’s our society valuing the potential of every single American and making investments to guarantee that no crisis deprives us of the chance to make something of ourselves. And it mattered that there were people in the room, people with power, who could personally speak to experiences with accessing government services in times of crisis.

The impact of a more representative Legislature goes beyond getting the funding our historically marginalized communities desperately need. The lived experience of legislators who, like me, grew up translating essential documents from government agencies for our parents who struggled with English has shaped how we have designed the process for aid — making sure it gets to the people who need it the most. Across the board, we prioritized allocating funding to existing, trusted community-based organizations rather than standing up a maze of new red tape for folks to navigate. 

This paradigm shift away from austerity and towards investing in people didn’t happen by accident. It’s the result of tireless advocacy from my colleagues who took the leap from community leadership to elected office and now walk the halls of power in Olympia. Representation from the communities most harmed by decades of neglect transformed our approach to this crisis and made sure we delivered real results instead of the performative “progress” of the past. 

But this is just the beginning; the same movement that delivered change to Olympia in 2018 and 2020 is propelling People of Color to run for local office this year. They’re stepping up because the crisis of the last year has forced all of us to confront harsh realities that have been allowed to lurk beneath the surface for too long. 

We know what it means to try to navigate systems that weren’t built for us. There are consequences when power is exercised without a firsthand understanding of what it means when our government fails to serve the most vulnerable. Our public health departments, city and county councils, and port commissions badly need leaders who will act with the fierce urgency of now to finish the work we started in Olympia.

Sen. Joe Nguyen represents the 34th Legislative District in the Washington Senate.

📸 Featured Image: 2018 Jobs and Justice March in Seattle, WA. (Photo: Susan Fried)

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