Comment: We need tax fairness and investment, not austerity

Racial and economic equality requires lawmakers to fix a regressive tax code and preserve state jobs.

By Andrea Vaughn / For The Herald

Washington is facing a long road to recovery from the global coronavirus pandemic. Covid-19 created an economic crisis and exacerbated systemic inequity that have continued far too long.

Now we have a choice to make.

As we make our way forward, we can work together to address Washington state’s grossly unfair tax structure, reviving our economy more quickly and starting to address the structural injustices that hurt families of color the most.

Or we can allow our state to adopt damaging and unjust austerity policies that prolong economic recession and hurt our jobs, families and communities.

I’m honored to serve as the vice president of the Washington Federation of State Employees, a union representing 47,000 people in every public job from medical interpreters to road maintenance crews and social workers.

Our union is calling for us to build back better, with a tax code that works for all of us, not just the super-wealthy. Unions have long been the path to the middle class for families of color like mine, and we are all in for this fight.

Despite our reputation as a progressive state, Washington ranks the worst of all 50 states in terms of tax inequality. In Washington’s tax structure, the lowest-income taxpayers contribute the largest share of their income, while the highest-income pay the smallest.

This rigged tax system affects us all, regardless of the color of our skin, ZIP code or the language we speak at home. Every legislative session, funding unprotected public services such as road maintenance projects, college financial aid and care for vulnerable Washingtonians is a challenge.

But it especially impacts Black Washingtonians as the wage gap between white and Black families grows. According to a 2019 report on the United States’ racial and ethnic wage gaps, this gulf is only widening:

“Wage gaps by race/ethnicity describe how much less African American and Hispanic workers are paid relative to white workers. Throughout the wage distribution, black-white wage gaps were larger in 2018 than in 2000.”

You might think that those with lower earnings would have the same or lower tax rates than those who earn more. But you’d be wrong. The less you earn in our state, the greater your tax responsibility. Washingtonians in the lowest income bracket, where people of color are overrepresented, pay about three times as much as a percentage of their income as the wealthiest Washingtonians.

How is it right that those struggling to make ends meet pay a larger percentage of their income in taxes than the super-wealthy?

In past, less severe economic downturns, Washington legislators attempted to balance budget shortfalls with heavy cuts to services like public health, infrastructure repairs and food assistance for struggling families.

Eliminating services and jobs led to a longer and more difficult recovery.

Making those drastic cuts means eliminating social workers, firefighters, Child Protective Services workers and other critical positions; and when those employees lose their jobs, that means even less spending in their communities.

In the face of significant economic challenge, cutting services and spending can only make things worse.

Our outdated and upside-down tax system makes it challenging to preserve critical public services in times of economic downturn. It sabotages job stability for tens of thousands of public employees and puts an even heavier burden on families of color. In Washington, getting to racial justice means addressing economic justice, too.

Poverty and oppression can be exhausting and disenfranchising. I want a more just and equitable future for my family and my community.

We must come together across racial lines as we have in the past to build an economy that works for all of us.

We urge our state lawmakers to bring much needed equity to our tax system and to support and invest in the people of Washington by saving jobs and giving everyone the opportunity to thrive.

Andrea Vaughn is vice president for the Washington Federation of State Employees, AFSCME Council 28. A doula, Vaughn lives in Everett.

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