Tag Archives: Marilyn Watkins

OPINION: SNAP Increase Is Overdue, Welcome News for Strapped Family Budgets

by Marilyn Watkins

Starting Oct. 1, households that rely on SNAP, also known as food stamps, will see a welcome increase in their grocery budget of about $36 per person per month. Currently, the maximum monthly benefit for a family of four is just $680 per month. About 950,000 people in Washington — 1 out of every 8 residents — receive SNAP to cover their basic food expenses.

Unfortunately, SNAP benefits haven’t kept pace with actual food costs for a long time. We’ve seen growing food insecurity for several years as housing prices, health care, and other basic expenses also continue to rise much faster than family incomes, forcing people to make tough choices about how to pay all the bills. The pandemic and economic disruptions of the past 18 months have only exacerbated the problem and deepened racial and gender income disparities. Despite rosy reports of a growing economy and rebounding jobs this summer, 18% of Black Washington households and 11% of Latino households reported not having enough food to eat the last week of July – compared to just 4% of White households. Altogether, 35% of Washington SNAP recipients reported not having enough food.

Continue reading OPINION: SNAP Increase Is Overdue, Welcome News for Strapped Family Budgets

Why Washington State’s Tax System Continues to Fail Our Kids

by Marilyn Watkins

The kids are back in school – and last week the Washington Supreme Court gave the State Legislature an “F” for failing to adequately fund public schools across the state.

Meanwhile, a new analysis by Standard & Poor’s concludes that growing income inequality is causing sales tax revenues to fall. According to the highly respected global credit rating firm, the share of income for the top 1% doubled in the U.S. between 1980 and 2011, while the rate of revenue growth for the states fell by half.

The link between rising inequality and declining revenue growth was strongest in the states that depend most heavily on sales tax – including Washington, which is second only to Florida in the degree to which we rely on sales tax. States with progressive income taxes, on the other hand, have by and large been able to maintain state revenues and services as the economy has changed, according to S&P.

Standard & Poor’s report comes as no surprise to anyone who’s studied Washington’s tax system. Washington has the most regressive tax system in the country, with low and moderate income residents paying higher shares of state and local taxes while the wealthiest pay far less than in other states. Small businesses also pay higher rates than big businesses – even before all the tax breaks and (perfectly legal) tax dodging from which some corporations benefit.

For decades, Washington state’s economy, population, and total personal income have grown at much faster rates than sales tax revenue, which provides over half of the state general fund. As a result, we’re failing our kids. We haven’t been able to implement improvements in the K-12 system, we can’t provide all kids who need it with high quality early learning, and we’ve jacked up tuition and limited enrollment in higher education – even as more jobs require a college degree.

Most of us know terrific, inspirational teachers and school staff, and Washington’s school kids consistently outperform all American kids in standardized tests. Yet children of color face a big achievement gap, receive harsher discipline, and are more likely to drop out. Washington has the 4th highest number of kids per teacher among all the states. We’re only in the middle in terms of teachers’ salaries – Georgia and Wyoming pay their teachers better.

Two years ago, the state Supreme Court told the legislature it was failing to meet its constitutional obligation to amply fund K-12 education. The legislature adopted great goals to make quality education accessible to all kids, but failed to come up with a plan to fund it. Now the court has found the legislature in contempt.

While Washington ranks 16th among states in total personal income, we’re in 42nd place in our level of investment in K-12 education. All but one of the states ahead of us have an income tax.

Our current tax system worked well enough in the mid-20th century, but it’s insufficient today. As long as we continue to rely on sales tax for half our general fund revenue, we will fall behind and fail our children. The only way to make our system less regressive and require the people with the most money to pay their fair share is to lower the sales tax and adopt a progressive state income tax.

Even facing a contempt ruling from the Supreme Court, the odds of our state legislature reforming the state revenue system in 2015 are close to zero. Most legislators believe with good reason they’ll be booted out of office if they do. But maybe they could take a step in that direction by ending corporate tax breaks and adopting a capital gains tax –  which by excluding retirement savings and providing a modest exemption would fall almost exclusively on the top 5%.

To get the rest of the way to sufficient, stable funding for the long haul, the legislature could dust off and update the findings of the bipartisan Gates commission, which over a decade ago recommended restructuring the state tax system. Then in 2016, they could put some real options to fully fund a comprehensive education system before the voters.

Meanwhile, it’s up to us, the people of Washington state, to force a public conversation on what it’s really going to take to fully fund the public services we need for individual opportunity and shared prosperity. Because we’re the ones who are really failing our kids.

Marilyn Watkins is policy director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, a nonpartisan policy center  focused on building and economy that works for everyone.

The Next Great American Hero

by Marilyn Watkins

Last week I was in Washington, DC and had a morning free of meetings to wander among the monuments. Families, school kids, and tour groups from across the nation and around the world were there, searching out names on the Vietnam Memorial wall, reading the words of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, snapping selfies in front of the White House with the Washington Monument towering in the background.

It was a good antidote to the cynicism and division that tend to dominate our view of politics today. All those diverse tourists seemed to share a certain excitement and solemnity – a sense of respect for the struggles of the past and hope for the promise of a more just and peaceful future.

Those monuments remind us of the power of America’s founding ideals and that we’ve never fully realized them.  Our Founding Fathers wrote in our nation’s Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal”, yet they enshrined slavery in our Constitution and excluded women, Africans and Native Americans from participation in the new democracy they created.

The words of Lincoln’s second inaugural address are inscribed on the wall by his statue. Near the end of the bloody and destructive Civil War, Lincoln spoke not of blame or revenge, but of shared guilt for the horrors of slavery. He committed to work for reconciliation, and knew it could not come about without attention to justice and individual well being. Lincoln concluded with these words:  “With malice toward none; with charity for all… let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

The memorials to World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War that stretch between the Lincoln and Washington Monuments make clear that lasting peace among nations is far from realized. The Martin Luther King memorial reminds us that a full century after the close of the Civil War, we still needed a Civil Rights Movement and federal intervention to end racial segregation. We’ve come a long way in the 50 years since, but racial equality still has not been achieved.

We live now with continually streaming news reports of legislative and Congressional dysfunction, war, environmental destruction, school shootings, and cultural clashes. No wonder American voters tend to be cynical and apathetic.

A stroll among the monuments to our nation’s history is a good reminder that challenges and divisions are nothing new. We’ve faced seemingly intractable problems before. Sometimes one side is wrong and compromise isn’t possible. Slavery and racial segregation had to end.

Our democracy has never been perfect, but we’ve made progress toward realizing the vision of a nation where all are born with equal opportunity to pursue happiness.

That progress has come not just because we’ve had a few great leaders like Washington, Lincoln, and King. Each of them was supported by a broader movement of ordinary citizens who were willing to stand up and demand change from their government. Washington became our first president on the shoulders of the sons and daughters of liberty. Abolitionists campaigned for decades before Lincoln’s election and the abolition of slavery. King was one leader in the Civil Rights movement, and was reviled, jailed, and assassinated before he was enshrined in granite as a national hero.

Democracy and the promise of America is a work in progress. We can’t just wait for the next hero to come along and solve our problems. We have to do our part to bend the arc of history toward justice. We have to prepare the way for the next hero – and that hero may just be one of us.

Marilyn Watkins is policy director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, a nonpartisan policy center  focused on building and economy that works for everyone.