Commentary: Direct aid can help state economy, protect health

We don’t have to choose between the economy and public health if we help people survive the downturn.

By June Robinson and Strom Peterson / For The Herald

Since the coronavirus first arrived in Washington state last winter and we entered our first shelter-at-home period, some have framed our decisions as a false choice: Either we must keep stores and restaurants open and jeopardize public health in order to save the economy, they argued, or we must face economic ruin by shutting down businesses to save lives.

We do not face a choice between public health and the economy, because they’re intertwined. The economy can’t fully recover until we have beaten back coronavirus and people are able to continue their lives without jeopardizing their health and the health of their loved ones. Insufficient half-measures will only endanger customers and workers, in exchange for a shambling economy that benefits no one. The pandemic and its resulting economic crisis are so connected that they must be addressed simultaneously.

The people of Washington have done their part to combat coronavirus by staying home when possible and slowing the spread of covid-19. And while everyone in Washington has been affected by the pandemic, the truth is that not every community has been affected equally. Women have lost their jobs at rates far exceeding that of men, and the virus and its attendant economic downturn have taken a far greater toll among workers who are not able to work from home, many of whom are members of communities of color.

The economy is powered by consumer demand. It’s your spending that creates jobs. Because they’ve stayed at home — or lost their jobs — Washingtonians haven’t been able to spend money in their communities, and small businesses have been forced to lay off employees. Those employees then don’t have money to spend in their communities, which creates a negative feedback loop that shrinks the economy, harming us all.

The good news is that we can defeat the virus and save Washington’s economy by providing direct support to families and small businesses, so people can afford to stay home and businesses can afford to safely survive the crisis. And by protecting and increasing investments in safety net services such as unemployment, food security and rent support now to keep people safe and secure during the pandemic, we’re ensuring that the economy will hit the ground running again as we begin to fully open up in the summer. When people don’t have to fear economic ruin, they can continue to stay home and help flatten the curve. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do for our economy.

By supporting our people now, we can ensure a steady supply of the true driver of economic growth — consumer spending, which creates jobs and sustains business — to supercharge our economy once the cure is at hand. And if we offer targeted support that directly affects the communities that have suffered a greater impact from the pandemic and its economic aftereffects, Washington state will bounce back stronger than ever once the pandemic has passed, in a truly inclusive economic recovery.

And the pandemic will pass. Though we have some dark days ahead in our fight against coronavirus, there’s a light at the end of this tunnel; vaccines are on the way. But just because we’ll knock the virus back on its heels doesn’t mean the economy will automatically recover. If we lose too many small businesses, and if too many people are left in poverty, our communities could take years to return to pre-pandemic levels.

We can’t afford to repeat the mistakes of 2008, when the Great Recession left Washington state’s economy reeling and our leaders responded with austerity measures that slowed the recovery and left too many people behind. It’s a knee-jerk reaction in a crisis to cut spending, pull back on state investments, and furlough employees. But we know from data looking back at our recovery from the Great Recession that all these measures only made things worse by siphoning even more consumers out of the economy.

Instead, we need to keep cash flowing through our communities, creating jobs and stimulus by increasing investments. We can do that, by finally mustering the political will to balance our state’s upside-down tax code by raising taxes on a small handful of the richest people and corporations in the state. By finally expecting the super-rich to pay a little bit more, we can drive a robust recovery, kickstarting consumer demand and creating jobs in a positive feedback loop that will make us stronger than before.

We’re proud to stand with the dozens of incumbent and newly-elected lawmakers who have pledged to reject austerity measures and instead unify around immediate, impactful and inclusive solutions that protect critical services and provide urgent relief to struggling Washingtonians. Rather than haggling over the details of the necessary public health measures that protect us, all lawmakers should join us in our fight to restore Washington’s economy for everyone and let public health measures be decided by public health experts.

State Sen. June Robinson, D-Everett, represents the 38th Legislative District. State Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, represents the 21st Legislative District.

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