The stark inequality in our nation is on display here in Seattle – high-end restaurants and food banks, shops full of pricey designer gear and homeless folks. A few enjoy prosperity and seemingly boundless opportunity, while in nearby neighborhoods people struggle for the basics.
The so-called recovery from the Great Recession has heightened these contrasts. Corporate profits and the stock market are soaring, but job growth is lagging. It will take another five years for all the people in Washington now looking for a job to find one at our current rate of growth. And while some of those new jobs offer great salaries and benefits, too many pay well below a living wage.
Since 2008, wages of the top 20% of Washington earners have grown faster than inflation, but everyone in the middle or below actually lost ground. Meanwhile, women working in King County bring home just 62% of the average monthly paycheck for men.
When Seattleites are studied by race, a White household in the middle of the income spectrum has more than similarly situated families of any other racial group, and twice the income of a Black household, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. While 56% of Seattle’s married couples enjoy incomes over $100,000 per year, more than one in four women-headed households and 15% of our city’s children live in poverty.
These inequalities did not happen by accident or because of some immutable laws of economics. Since the 1980s, many of our national policies have undermined the middle class and transferred power to corporate elites. Congress cut taxes for the highest-income individuals and corporations, resulting in less to invest in Head Start, college access, basic research, and public infrastructure. Corporations face less oversight and a freer hand across the globe, while unions and other protections for working people are weaker.
Boeing could successfully demand that the Machinists give up their pensions and the state hand out further tax breaks because the middle class across the country is so beaten down.
If we change course and adopt policy to build up the middle class, businesses will have more customers, which will mean more hiring and more bargaining power for workers. Unfortunately, in the other Washington, a handful of Tea Partiers and Koch brothers’ minions prevent Congress from acting to improve our national economy, preferring instead to punish anyone who is unemployed, female, or poor.
This is the context our state legislators face as they start the 2014 legislative session in Olympia. There are plenty of things our state could do that would re-channel more of the benefits of economic growth to working people rather than to corporate profits. Here is my short list:
1. Pass a transportation package that includes investment in public transit. Increased investment in infrastructure creates good-paying jobs across the state and boosts the mobility we all need.
2. Increase our state minimum wage to $12. Our lowest-wage workers –in some of the toughest jobs –earn less than the inflation-adjusted level of the 1960s, and far below what it takes to pay for the basics.
3. Pass statewide Paid Sick Days. No one should be forced to go to work sick, or leave their sick child miserably suffering at school. Seattle’s economy is the best in the state with Paid Sick Days.
4. Open up quality Early Learning programs to more kids and give child care teachers a raise. Investing in our youngest kids helps ensure their future success in life, saves tax-payer dollars in the long run, and takes pressure off working parents.
5. Expand access to higher education. The Dream Act for immigrant kids and implementing the Pay It Forward model of debt-free college financing are good places to start.
6. Close tax loopholes – and don’t create any new ones. Corporations that whine about wanting more public investment in education and infrastructure need to start paying up.
Most observers have low expectations for what our state legislature will accomplish this year. Power is divided, with Democrats controlling the House and the Senate controlled by Republicans, joined by two former Democrats.
On a more hopeful note, average working people are beginning to show their political potential again. Seattle voters elected Socialist Kshama Sawant to City Council over incumbent Richard Conlin – the lone vote against Seattle’s popular Paid Sick Days law. And SeaTac voters approved a $15 minimum wage plus paid sick leave for airport-related workers.
Chances are, we’ll get token progress at best in Olympia this year. But if voters demand action from the people who represent them, then we can change our economy so that it works for us all.