Since the first U.S. coronavirus case was confirmed in Washington state in January, we have seen the public health crisis rapidly evolve into an economic crisis across our communities and state. As COVID-19 continues to impact the well-being of hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians, the Washington State Budget & Policy Center – along with so many others – is assessing how state lawmakers must respond to the growing needs of Washingtonians and our communities. We know that the health of our economy is dependent on the health and economic well-being of the people of our state. And we know that elected officials must use state and local policy to mitigate the worst impacts and address the structural failures of our economy and systems that have been exposed by this crisis.
We can’t repeat the mistakes of the past
As we gauge the economic fallout of COVID-19, the Budget & Policy Center team has been reaching out to our partners to understand their challenges in this moment and to strategize the path forward together. One message was echoed repeatedly: “We can’t make the same mistakes of the Great Recession.” Starting in 2009, lawmakers responded to the economic and fiscal crisis largely with deep cuts to public services and disinvestment in communities. And they increased our state’s reliance on regressive sources of revenue like fees for the use of public services like parks. All of this resulted in continued hardship for individuals and families, a longer and deeper economic downturn than necessary, and growing inequality for the people and communities in our state.
Out of our conversations with partners, we have crafted a set of principles to guide our work at the Budget & Policy Center as we respond to this crisis. We hope this will also guide the response of state policymakers and support the work of partners as they advocate for equitable policy responses.
We will use these principles to develop a COVID-19 policy agenda that centers and prioritizes communities most impacted by the crisis, improves people’s economic security and social opportunity, and builds on the essential role of government in promoting a just and prosperous society.
We must envision a better future
We offer this framework of principles as a starting place for future conversations. To guide Washington through this economic recovery, policymakers and policies should:
Lead with equity.
The current health and economic crisis has put into sharp focus on the inequities in our state created by past and persistent policy and budget decisions. The recovery efforts must center communities experiencing the greatest health and economic impacts. That includes people with low incomes, immigrants, undocumented workers, communities of color, tribal nations, people with disabilities, rural communities, young workers, older adults, women, domestic violence survivors, and trans and nonbinary people. So many impacted communities are already working in innovative and resourceful ways to meet community needs, and policymakers must include them in decision-making processes and prioritize resources to these communities first. Without an inclusive and intentional response, the current health and economic crisis will only continue to compound existing inequities.
Provide immediate, impactful, and sustained relief in the form of direct cash assistance and bolstering public services.
Hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians have been severely impacted by sudden job loss, income reductions, the loss of employer-sponsored health coverage, and other forms of financial devastation. Many who were already struggling to make ends meet before the pandemic’s onset face the increasingly profound challenges of paying for housing, putting food on the table, and meeting other basic needs. To prevent the economic downturn from being deeper and longer than necessary, leaders must deliver immediate, direct, and sustained relief to Washingtonians most in need, including direct cash assistance. In many cases, this will require thinking beyond our existing services and systems. Lawmakers can’t simply focus on delaying hardship for the short-term, but instead they must truly position all Washingtonians to thrive over the long-term.
Big, visionary solutions – not short-term, incremental changes – are the only way to advance an equitable recovery and to prepare our state for future crises.
Make permanent fixes to underlying structural failures.
The pandemic has surfaced and elevated the ways in which our state systems were structured to benefit certain groups while disadvantaging others even before the public health crisis began. Gaps in wealth, opportunity, and prosperity are getting worse. We cannot afford to go back to the status quo of regressive and inequitable systems. Lawmakers must make bold, permanent structural changes – particularly to our broken tax code that over-relies on low- and middle-income households to fund the investments that benefit us all. Big, visionary solutions – not short-term, incremental changes – are the only way to advance an equitable recovery and to prepare our state for future crises.
Implement policy responses rooted in trust and dignity, not paternalism.
As Washingtonians turn to public resources for critical financial support, they’re encountering the many barriers that have been built into our anti-poverty policies and programs for decades. Strict eligibility and work requirements, onerous application processes, and a lack of information in languages other than English perpetuate inequities and restrict access to vital support, especially for communities of color and immigrant communities. Because our safety net is only effective if communities can access it, Washington state’s policy response must prioritize implementation that is primarily automatic, low-barrier, and inclusive. The same is true for community and nonprofit organizations, tribal nations, and small businesses that are also seeking support – relief to these entities needs to be accessible and free from red tape.
This moment demands we join together and call for policies that put people and communities first. It will take courage and creativity.
Reject a scarcity mindset: There is enough wealth in our state to invest in our people.
Even in this time of economic crisis, our state is home to individuals with massive wealth and profitable corporations. We have the resources to preserve community investments while also making new investments that boost Washington’s economic recovery and mitigate impacts on those most impacted by COVID-19. Ensuring we have revenue to fund the public services that benefit us all will require adopting sustainable and equitable new funding sources. It’s time to eliminate wasteful tax breaks for large corporations and impose new taxes on the richest households who have long been given a special deal at the expense of people with low and middle incomes.
Help us get this right to support the well-being of our communities
Washingtonians literally cannot afford to just wait out this crisis. This moment demands we join together and call for policies that put people and communities first. It will take courage and creativity – every budget and policy choice lawmakers make is an opportunity to re-imagine and build a more just and inclusive future for our state.
We offer this framework as a starting place for future conversations, and invite you to engage with us. In the coming weeks, our team will be working with partners and policymakers to develop specific policy solutions in a range of areas, including state level cash assistance and progressive revenue.
We invite you to join us in this work. Please share your thoughts and feedback with us by emailing us.