When we consider our two political parties, we generalize that the Republicans are beholden to corporate capital, antagonistic to the poor and mired in anti-abortion politics and that the Democrats pay more attention to poverty, are less beholden to corporate capital and appear to revel in the identity politics of ethnicity, race and gender.
But what is too often left out of the discussion by both parties are policy solutions that create economic security for middle-class Americans.
Republicans seem to leave the middle class to the whims of the private market, especially in the delivery of basic needs such as rent and mortgages, internet access, cell phones, health care bills and education. Democrats don’t do much better, creating means-tested programs for low-income households that come with powerful disincentives for economic advancement into the middle class.
Things are a bit different in Washington state, with some kudos and some critiques for both parties. During the great recession a decade ago, the Democrats — who controlled the legislature — dealt with the public funding crisis in higher education by increasing tuition from less than $9,000 to more than $15,000 at the University of Washington (calculated with 2021 inflated dollars). They refused to consider progressive taxes to make up the difference, taxes that would have been levied on the 5 percent of more affluent households.
They made up for the tuition increase with much-heralded student financial aid for the lowest income students, but this only provided partial support to students below 70 percent of the median income ($26,000 for an individual in today’s dollars) and was grossly underfunded, leaving a quarter of qualifying low income students with no tuition aid at all. With tuition continuing to increase, it is no surprise that enrollment has stagnated in four-year colleges. Tuition at community colleges now exceeds $4,000 and enrollment has dropped by almost one quarter.
The Democrats enforced tuition increases and underfunded a student aid program that was only for the very poor. Stepping in as a voice for all students, state Sen. John Braun (Republican from Centralia), responded with a simple bill to reduce tuition by 20 percent. This passed in 2015 when the Republicans controlled the state Senate. So which party had its eyes on the middle class?
Fast forward to 2019, when the Democrats put together a surtax on businesses to fund workforce education. But not all businesses — they were careful in committee to quietly carve out an exception for Amazon and Microsoft, enabling these companies to avoid significant taxation. That corporate coddling was enabled by an Amazon lobbyist who had been a Democratic state senator just a year earlier. When asked about this loophole, Democratic legislators said they couldn’t touch it because they had a deal with these lobbyists. They seem to have forgotten that in a democracy, the deal is with people.
This new money funded the College Grant program, but only a student on her own with income less than $33,500 or a student from a four-person family with income less than $64,500 could receive full tuition. If you live in Tacoma and your family income is $81,000 for four people, you will get $447 to cover community college tuition of $4,470. If you are on your own and make $21 an hour at a full-time job, you will have worked yourself out of any tuition assistance. And, if you have one sibling and your parents make $25 an hour and work full time, and then your mom and dad get 90 cent wage increases, you and your sibling lose any tuition support.
It seems we are purposefully leaving out working class and middle class families and encouraging people not to increase their earnings.
This financial cliff for tuition support undermines Washingtonians’ efforts to advance their own health and wellbeing. These cliffs are replicated over and over again, whether for food stamps, housing assistance, health coverage, school lunches… the list goes on.
Who is thinking about the middle class this year in our state? Let’s look back to 2008 when the Democrats passed, but did not fund, the Working Families Tax Credit. The legislature finally got around to funding these tax credits this year. Now if you are married, file your income taxes jointly, make less than $55,500 and have two kids, you can get $900 from Washington state. But if you make $56,000 you are out of luck. This means that the vast majority of working families are not eligible for this benefit. If you and your partner each work 30 hours a week, make $20 an hour and have two kids, you still won’t get this tax credit. So, it is really the very poor working families tax credit.
This year the Democrats proposed including people between the ages of 18 and 24 (currently you have to be over 24 to get this credit), but they didn’t touch the income ceiling that fences this benefit off from the vast majority of workers. It took the Republicans to propose that through House Bill 1000, which would double the benefit levels — making them a bit more meaningful — and double the earnings allowed to qualify, making this much closer to a true tax credit for working families and actually paying attention to working class and middle class families.
Democrats aren’t moving this bill; they say they don’t have the money. But they do have the majorities, and they could pass, for example, the 1 percent tax on intangible wealth in excess of $250 million owned by the oligarchs in our state, proposed by state Sen. Noel Frame (D-Seattle). This would raise more than $3 billion each year, a sum that would easily pay for this expanded Working Families Tax Credit and a lot of public services that the legislature defunded over the past decade, such as decent compensation for child care workers and universal free school lunches. There could not be a more fair and equitable proposal: A tiny tax on stocks held by billionaires to recompense working Washingtonians raising their families.
Read more of the Mar. 22-28, 2023 issue.