Budget in focus: Lawmakers made so-so investments in community health

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Budget in focus: Lawmakers made so-so investments in community health

The final state budget left many basic needs unmet

By - May 28, 2019

All Washingtonians should have the opportunity to make choices that allow them to live a long, healthy life, regardless of their income, education, race, and ethnicity. The final state budget did include some investments to remove some of the current obstacles to good health outcomes that exist for many communities throughout our state. But there is much unfinished business when it comes to creating strong, healthy communities – and when it comes to meeting the basic needs of families, children, and individuals. Ultimately, legislators did not fix our state’s upside-down tax code in their final budget. And although they made some laudable investments that communities will benefit from, they still approached budget-writing with a short-sighted, austerity mindset. So their final budget missed some critical opportunities to invest in the health and well-being of all Washingtonians.

Health outcomes are heavily influenced by social and economic factors like income, access to affordable housing, and social support. Here is how the final budget compromise did and did not address the social and economic factors that influence health:

It didn’t go far enough to undo the cuts to WorkFirst.

A decade of harmful cuts to the WorkFirst/Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)  program have resulted in tens of thousands of families losing basic assistance and work supports, many of whom are homeless and dealing with severe mental health issues. Inflexible time limits and harsh penalties when families struggle to meet work requirements have cut families off the program. Many of those cuts have had stark racist impacts for Black and American Indian families.

Lawmakers should have invested $63 million to roll back these harmful cuts to the program. In doing so, they would have eliminated the policies that are disproportionately harming Black and American Indian families.

However, the maintenance levels for the final budget assume that inflexible time limits and harsh penalties will continue, thus cutting the WorkFirst/TANF program by $23 million.

On a positive note, the final budget did at least invest $5 million in the elimination of an extremely harmful TANF policy that permanently disqualifies families when they get sanctioned three times. It also allows families that are homeless (on the streets or in shelters) to get time-limit extensions.

These are important steps to restore the program. But rolling back recession era cuts to the program is an important piece of unfinished business for the legislature to address when they return to develop a supplemental budget next January.

It missed an opportunity to promote the health of workers making low wages.

The Working Families Tax Credit, our state version of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, is a key tool for promoting health, improving educational outcomes for children, and alleviating housing costs. Senate leaders proposed enacting the Working Families Tax Credit, which would’ve provided a cost-of-living boost to hundreds of thousands of low-wage Washingtonians. But the final budget did not enact this commonsense policy.

Failing to enact the Working Families Tax Credit was a big loss for the well-being of people who are having a hard time keeping up with our state’s rising costs. Study after study has demonstrated that the federal EITC and other state versions of the EITC are successful in helping alleviate poverty and helping people make ends meet.

It neglected an important opportunity to move the needle on health equity.

Opportunities for better health begin where we live, work, learn, and play. However, a history of institutional and structural racism has created barriers to opportunity and health – and perpetuated income and wealth inequalities – for many communities of color. This is the result of historical and continued public policies like redlining, employment discrimination, and an inequitable tax code. People of color are more likely to experience preventable illnesses, have shorter life expectancies, and have worse birth outcomes in Washington state.

To address these barriers to opportunity, the final state budget should have provided significant additional funding for a newly formed state commission representing communities of color throughout the state – the Communities of Concern Commission. The commission aims to leverage increased investments in financial capital assets in communities of color.

The commission would have used additional capital funding to direct investments toward improving cultural centers, building affordable housing, and building community infrastructure – like access to broadband internet in rural communities.

The bills that would have created the necessary infrastructure for this important commission both died. This was a mistake. This commission would have taken critical steps to help undo some of the barriers to economic opportunity and good health that persist for many communities of color.

Housing investments are a step in the right direction.

In order to be healthy, everyone, regardless of age or ability, needs access to safe and affordable housing. High housing costs and slow wage growth have made it more challenging for many Washingtonians to afford rent or their mortgage payment. The good news is that the final budget dedicated $175 million to build more affordable housing through the Housing Trust Fund, which will build 5,000 much-needed permanently affordable homes.

Legislators also took a step in the right direction to address the need for housing stability for people who are sick or who have a temporary disability, by increasing support for the Housing and Essential Needs (HEN) program. Thousands of people facing illnesses and disabilities are on waitlists to get this crucial support. The final budget smartly included $14.5 million for this program.

Although these are important steps, the need still far outweighs what the final budget included. Fully funding the Housing Trust Fund would have required at least $200 million, and meeting the needs of all those who need the support of HEN would have required an investment of $69 million.

Better access to fresh fruits and vegetables will support good health.

A well-balanced diet is a fundamental building block of good health. Yet many people in our state struggle to afford healthy food. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a proven strategy for improving health outcomes and lowering health costs.

The final budget expanded the Fresh Bucks program, which make fruits and vegetables more affordable for participants in SNAP and the Washington state Women, Infants, and Children supplemental nutrition program (or WIC) by providing additional benefits at participating farmers markets and grocers. The $2.5 million allocated toward this program will enable thousands of families with low incomes to continue to purchase healthy food and prevent the possibility of food insecurity and hunger.

Incremental progress isn’t enough. Lawmakers must do more to support community health.

The right starting place for budgeting for a healthy state is to examine the necessary investments for thriving communities. State policymakers, however, built their budget around a broken tax code and approached it with a mindset of austerity – not a mindset of investing in the well-being of all our communities. As a result, state lawmakers ended the session with a final budget that underinvests in important community needs. When they reconvene in 2020, they will need a shift in thinking to build the future we all want for our state.