This past tax day, April 17, brought a growing sense of dread to hundreds of thousands of people across Washington. With the passage of the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act last year, GOP-led Congress is looking to slash critical services in order to pay for their $1.4 trillion tax cut for corporations and the wealthy. Hardworking Americans will receive tiny, temporary tax cuts that pale in comparison to the loss of essential services on which they depend. What’s worse? Low-income, working Washingtonians are hit doubly hard thanks to our state tax code, the most upside-down in the country.
In a state with a booming economy and unprecedented growth, we have the single most regressive tax code in the nation. Our upside-down tax code asks working households to pay up to 17 percent of their income in state and local taxes, middle-income households to pay 10 percent and the wealthiest to pay less than 3 percent. Our taxes pay for things that lead to thriving communities. We’re all better off with world-class public schools for each and every child, affordable housing, a robust state safety net and accessible health care. But thanks to our inequitable tax code, we struggle to invest in those shared foundations, asking those who can least afford them to pay nearly seven times more than those with the most wealth.
I see the effects of our upside-down tax code every day through my work for Washington’s Statewide Poverty Action Network. Washington is seen nationwide as an economic bright spot, but our booming economy masks an ugly truth: The number of households with children in deep poverty — living on 50 percent or less of the national poverty threshold — has more than doubled in the last 20 years.
The number of households with children in deep poverty has more than doubled in the last 20 years.
How does this manifest? Families must choose between food and housing; between clothes and school supplies and, increasingly, must make the gut-wrenching decision about where to safely sleep each night. Last November, The Seattle Times reported that Seattle’s population of homeless students is growing at the same rate as New York’s. Just this month, the Economic Opportunity Institute found Seattle’s tax system to be the worst for low-income families in the entire state. A 2017 report found that poverty in Seattle has more than doubled since 2000. Our tax system isn’t just regressive, it’s insufficient. Because we ask those with the least to provide such an outsize share of the resources, we can’t fully invest in the services that help more people get back on their feet.
This issue is also personal to me. When I think about this, I think about my mother. Her chronic health conditions prevent her from working. She relies on federal government assistance to get by because she doesn’t have another option. Thanks to the massive $1.4 trillion deficit created by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, President Trump and other legislators are planning to cut funding for that assistance by billions. Washington’s social safety net remains critically underfunded, leaving her with few places to turn. That is the reality of Washington’s tax code.
For all the darkness of this harsh reality, I haven’t given up hope. The trend of deepening inequity isn’t inevitable; it’s a choice we make together. Luckily, there’s a growing movement across the state to make our tax code work for all of us. More and more legislators are committing themselves to pursuing effective solutions to clean up the tax code, like fighting for one that asks the wealthiest to pay their share and closing wasteful corporate tax breaks that only benefit powerful special interests. Here in Seattle, an effort is afoot to make our revenue streams more progressive so more can enjoy the fruits of Seattle’s economic boom. In our prosperous state, no one should have to live in poverty. Washingtonians are making their voices heard, and the message is clear: it’s time to fix our upside-down tax code.
Marcy Bowers is the executive director of Poverty Action Network.
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