OLYMPIA — Washington state continues to recover from the economic turbulence of COVID-19, but the recovery hasn’t benefited every segment of society.
Now, Washington officials are eyeing fresh steps and approaches to reduce poverty, including finding new ways to measure the economic recovery and disparities, and to boost the voice of communities often excluded from such policymaking.
The state Department of Social and Health Services is requesting $630,000 in new funding for four new staffers for an “emerging public-private collaboration to define, measure, and build accountability toward a just and equitable future.”
The budget request would fund a project manager, an engagement coordinator, a data scientist, and a specialist in data analytics and visualization, according to the request.
“Historically, traditional measures of economic recovery mask inequality in social and economic well-being, leading to harmful narratives and insufficient investment in equitable social, economic, and health outcomes,” according to the budget request. “A new vision for equitable economic recovery is needed, as well as a new approach to defining, measuring, and building accountability toward a just and equitable future.”
The staffers would work with among others the Poverty Reduction Work Group, convened by Gov. Jay Inslee in 2017, as well as the new state Office of Equity.
In an email, Inslee spokesperson Tara Lee wrote that, “poverty reduction efforts will be part of the governor’s 2022 budget proposal which is being finalized now and will roll out mid-December.”
The request for the state’s upcoming supplemental budget comes as Democrats in Congress are pushing for a new social spending bill there. Dubbed the Build Back Better legislation, it would provide universal preschool and more child care and affordable housing.
Roughly 1.75 million children and adults in Washington — a state of 7.7 million total — live below 200% of the federal poverty level, according to the DSHS budget request. For a family of four, that equates to an annual income of $53,000 or less.
If funded, the DSHS project would, according to the agency’s budget request, help “offer a shared vision and definition for what an ‘equitable economic recovery’ and ‘just and equitable future’ means as a point of departure for collaboration and discussion.”
The request stems from the work group, which in January released a 10-year plan titled “Dismantle Poverty.” Its recommendations include decriminalizing poverty, increasing economic opportunity and addressing structural racism.
The DSHS budget request is aimed at helping that 10-year plan tackle intergenerational poverty, according to Jim Baumgart, a senior policy adviser for Inslee.
The DSHS request might not look exactly the same in the budget Inslee proposes in the coming weeks, Baumgart said.
To better address poverty, staff are needed to look at economic data, and be available, for instance, to eyeball new programs in other states or countries to see if they might work in Washington.
“You have to have data analysis,” said Baumgart, who is a member of the work group. “You have to have people with the time and the vision to look more broadly across the nation and elsewhere.
Boosted by a resurgence in state tax collections and a billions in federal COVID aid dollars, lawmakers in Washington’s Democratic-controlled Legislature last winter poured money into a range of economic relief efforts. Those included spending more on child care and finally funding the long-languishing Working Families Tax Credit.
With tax collections continuing to rise, lawmakers will enter the short, 60-day scheduled legislative session in January without having to worry about budget cuts.
In response to rising tax collections, Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, called on Democrats to help residents another way: by cutting the state sales tax, or taxes on manufacturers and homeowners.
At the same time, the social spending bill being crafted by Democrats in Congress could bring additional relief — if the slim Democratic majorities can get a deal to President Joe Biden’s desk.
The version of the Build Back Better plan that passed the U.S. House this month included hundreds of billions of dollars to create universal preschool and funding to expand child care programs, according to the office of U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle.
The bill as it passed the House also includes $11.7 billion for affordable housing, which will help generate 27,000 units in Washington state, according to a statement earlier this month by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.
U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, blasted the package the day it passed.
“This multi-trillion dollar tax and spending spree is an unprecedented lurch towards more government control in our lives that will saddle our children with a debt they can never pay back,” McMorris Rodgers said in a statement.