Welcome to WA Possible, a podcast from the Washington State Budget and Policy Center about what is possible for economic justice in Washington state At the Budget at Policy Center, we dream of a brighter future where everyone has a home to rest in, families can afford child and elder care, and people have enough money to buy the food they need. We know that economic justice is possible here in Washington state because we are building toward it together. On WA Possible, we will talk with partners, advocates, and staff who are helping make this vision a reality. Learn more about our work at budgetandpolicy.org
Thursday Apr 20, 2023
Why the capital gains excise tax is awesome for Washington
Thursday Apr 20, 2023
Thursday Apr 20, 2023
In this special bonus episode of WA Possible, April Dickinson, communications specialist at the Washington State Budget and Policy Center, is joined by her colleague Senior Fellow Andy Nicholas to talk about why the capital gains excise tax is awesome for Washington.
In a decisive 7-2 ruling in March 2023, the Washington State Supreme Court upheld the state capital gains excise tax against efforts by self-interested millionaires and billionaires to overturn it. We’re thrilled that the revenue generated by this new tax on the wealthiest Washingtonians will help support kids and families across the state and we are so proud of every person and organization involved over the years for making this victory for tax justice happen.
The effort to pass a capital gains excise tax is part of a larger movement to fix our inequitable, worst in the nation tax code. We’re so excited to talk about what is possible for the people in our state as we’re starting to make progress on making our tax code for work everyone.
Theme music by Revanth Akella
Logo by Eileen Jimenez
Andy Nicholas (he/him) is a senior fellow at the Washington State Budget and Policy Center. He specializes in state budget and tax policy. Since joining the Budget and Policy Center in 2009, he has served on a Legislative Task Force on Tax Preference Reform and has conducted numerous analyses of Washington state’s tax code.
Andy previously worked at the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where he performed extensive research on state fiscal policy. Additionally, Andy taught English in China. He holds a Master of Public Policy from American University’s School of Public Affairs.
National Bureau of Economic Research paper on racial wealth gap.
Amicus Brief on the racial justice impact of the capital gains tax.
How WA state lawmakers could generate $7.2 billion in revenue over the next four years.
The Budget and Policy Center's work on the capital gains excise tax.
Key partners on the path to the capital gains tax victory:
Washington Community Alliance
Equity in Education Coalition
Firelands Workers United
Rural People's Voice
The Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle
Tacoma Urban League
Balance Our Tax Code
Washington For Black Lives
Invest In Washington Now
The Economic Opportunity Institute
The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
And even more!
[00:00:05] April Dickinson: Welcome to a very special bonus episode of WA Possible, the Washington State Budget and Policy Center's podcast about what is possible for economic justice in Washington state. I'm April Dickinson, communications specialist at the Budget and Policy Center and our senior fellow Andy Nicholas is joining me to talk about why the capital gains excise tax is awesome for Washington.
[00:00:25] As you probably already know, a decisive 7-2 ruling, the Washington State Supreme Court recently upheld the state capital gains excise tax against efforts by self-interested millionaires and billionaires to overturn it. We're thrilled that the revenue generated by this new tax on the wealthiest Washingtonians will help support kids and families across the state and we are so proud of every person and organization involved over the years for making this victory for tax justice happen.
The effort to pass a capital gains excise tax is part of a larger movement to fix our inequitable, worst in the nation tax code. We're so excited to talk about what is possible for the people in our state as we're starting to make progress on making our tax code work for everyone.
[00:01:09] So, Andy, I'm so glad to be talking with you at this truly historic moment. We'll cover the 12-year journey toward the implementation of the capital gains excise tax, more details about the Supreme Court decision, we'll get clear on what the tax is and isn't, and we'll talk about who benefits from the funding that will be generated.
But first, you've been with the Budget and Policy Center since the beginning of the capital gains tax journey and helped draft the initial policy. I just wanted to start by giving you a chance to reflect on everything that's happened over the last 12 years and just, you know, what's this moment like for you and how are you feeling?
[00:01:45] Andy Nicholas: Yeah, thanks, April. It's really great to be here. You know, it's a really gratifying moment when you're seeing our efforts and those of our partners pay off. We're seeing a really meaningful shift in Washington's upside-down tax code in a more equitable and progressive direction. And, you know, we're going to see a lot of big new investment in child care and early learning in our schools.
And as a parent with two young kids, I get - in a very real, tangible way - the challenges of paying for child care and making sure your kids are in a good situation. And, you know, a lot of parents aren't as lucky as I am. 500,000 kids across our state have no access to licensed child care right now. One in five parents in Washington have to turn down a job or a promotion because of concerns about child care and the lack of affordability. You know, it's really expensive. Child care in our state costs more than the annual in-state tuition at the University of Washington. People really don't know that.
[00:02:50] And, of course, child care workers - who are disproportionately women of color - are some of the lowest paid workers in our state, often earning only the minimum wage and yet arguably do some of the most important work we could ever imagine asking of someone, which is caring for our kids.
So yeah, it's a real gratifying moment. You know, the capital gains tax is the major funding source behind the Fair Start for Kids Act, which is a big boost in child care and early learning across the state. And the recent ruling that you referenced in the intro from the state Supreme Court, lopsided majority upholding the tax, secures that funding. It's going to be $500 million per year in new funding for child care, early learning, and schools.
[00:03:34] And, importantly, in years where millionaires and billionaires have like a really good year in the stock market and we get more than $500 million per year, that's all going to go to school construction across the state, which is going to be great for communities across the state, great for our kids, and it's going to create a lot of jobs.
So, yeah, it's exciting and a really gratifying time to be working at the Budget and Policy Center and seeing our efforts, and those of our partners you know, pay off.
[00:04:05] April: So it's been like a 12 year long process, as you mentioned before. What were some of the lessons that you learned along the way?
[00:04:12] Andy: Yeah, well, it takes a long time to build momentum around a policy, especially a progressive tax reform policy. And so, you know, I think the biggest lesson is you just got to keep at it. You do see a lot of folks coming in to, you know, the policy reform world, they have a great idea, but they get discouraged after a couple of years and abandon it. And that's too bad.
And it's understandable. The process does take way too long and there are way too many barriers to getting good things done. But, you know, keep at it is the lesson that I've learned.
And as you mentioned, we started this way back in late 2011. And just want to give a shout out to Mike Mitchell, former WA Possible guest. He was a fellow in our in our organization back then and he worked really closely with me on fleshing out the original concept way back in 2011. And so, yeah, thanks, Mike. Our efforts are paying off.
[00:05:13] You know, and then we just spent many years working with partners, working with lawmakers to refine the policy, continue to improve it, build momentum, explain to people and communities why we think it's a good idea. And yeah, it took over a decade, but that momentum and that work with our partners really paid off.
[00:05:36] April: That's awesome. And, you know, it's very clear that we, you know, you can't make such a huge change to the state's tax code alone, and we definitely didn't do it alone. And so let's just take a quick second to give a shout out to some of those partners that we have worked with. We probably can't fit them all here in this moment, but we'll definitely shout-out as many people as we can in the show notes. But yeah, who are some of those partners that we worked with to make this big change?
[00:06:01] Andy: Yeah, you're absolutely right. This would not have happened - You know, you don't just do a policy brief and then stuff happens and you get a win. It takes a lot of hard work with a lot of people. And so a ton of people joined us in this process and helped us get it across the finish line. The Washington Community Alliance, Equity in Education Coalition, Balance Our Tax Code, Firelands Workers United and Rural People’s Voice, OneAmerica, Washington for Black Lives. I mean, there is a lengthy list of community-based coalitions who really were instrumental in getting this across the finish line.
[00:06:40] April: Awesome.
[00:06:41] Andy: And I also would like to mention that there are a whole lot of very wealthy folks in Washington state who want to do right by their communities, who want to pay what they owe to support the common good. And there were dozens of wealthy individuals who will actually pay this tax, who wrote letters to the governor and to lawmakers, showed up and testified and said, this is a great idea for Washington state. We're happy to do our part. Please enact this tax. And so it was a really broad effort.
[00:07:08] April: That's awesome. So let's be super clear on what the capital gains excise tax actually is. Can you go ahead and describe it to us?
[00:07:16] Andy: Yeah. So it's a 7% excise, or transactional tax on extraordinary profits, those above a quarter million dollars per year, from the sale of financial assets. And that's mostly corporate stocks and bonds. So to make it a bit more concrete, let's say you're a millionaire and you sell a whole bunch of corporate stock and you reap a $400,000 profit from doing so. The way the law is structured is that the first $250,000 in that profit is exempt. So that millionaire is only going to pay [taxes on] $150,000. You know, the portion above $250,000 on their original stock profit.
As I said the tax rate is 7%. So you sort of fast forward all in all that millionaire will wind up keeping $389,500 of their original $400,000 profit. So they're keeping the vast majority of the profit, but they'll pay $10,500 in capital gains excise taxes, which will be channeled to communities to fund child care, early learning, schools. And all of the revenue is dedicated to our state Education Legacy Trust Account, where it will fund those important education priorities.
[00:08:31] April: So who are the people that are going to pay this tax? Like who are the most likely people to pay the tax?
[00:08:36] Andy: Yeah, so as I alluded to, this tax is only going to impact the very wealthiest households. It's somewhere between the wealthiest 0.2% and 0.1%. I've seen different estimates. If we're quibbling over the wealthiest zero point 10th of a percent, then we're pretty confident that this is only going to impact those who have who are very, very wealthy.
In fact, the average annual income of those who would be impacted is $2.2 million. And many of those make much more than that. And the reason why it only affects so few very wealthy households is one, because of that, that $250,000 exemption that I mentioned the first. So very few people are ever going to have stock profits over $250,000 per year. It's a pretty small, rarefied group.
[00:09:26] Second, we worked with partners and lawmakers to ensure that the tax really only applies to those highly concentrated stock profits. So all sales of real estate are exempt from the tax. All assets held in retirement accounts are exempt from the tax. The sale of a family owned small business, exempt. The sale of assets - you know, whole things across the board just to ensure that it's really only those stock profits from the very wealthiest households.
But it's important to understand the extent to which financial assets, corporate stocks and bonds, are concentrated among the very wealthiest households. You know, the wealthiest 1% of households in our state, they control over two thirds, 68% of all capital gains generated here every single year.
[00:10:17] April: So it sounds like the tax was structured very intentionally, so it would only apply to the very wealthiest in our state.
[00:10:24] Andy: That's right.
[00:10:26] April: All right. That sounds good to me. What are some other good reasons to tax extraordinary capital gains in our state?
[00:10:32] Andy: I mean, if you take a step back and look at what's driving this growth and an extreme wealth concentration and inequality in our state and in our nation, it's really corporate stocks and bonds and financial assets that are the major drivers of wealth inequality. And troublingly and especially, it's they're driving the, you know, racial wealth disparities.
In fact, there's a recent paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research which found that capital gains are basically solely responsible for the widening of racialized wealth disparities in our country since the late 1980s. And that's because policies since that era have just greatly benefited wealthy asset owners who are primarily white, instead of workers who are a much more diverse crowd.
[00:11:22] And so that's why we and a lot of community-based organizations across the state, many of which I mentioned earlier, like the Washington Community Alliance, One America, Equity in Education Coalition and others, we put together an amicus brief - or a friend of the court brief - that we sent to the state Supreme Court earlier this year, urging them to uphold the tax, which, as you mentioned, they did.
And that brief really outlined how stock profits and financial assets have been driving racialized wealth inequality and why the state capital gains excise tax is an important step towards, you know, intervening and, you know, reducing those disparities.
[00:12:03] April: And it's just super important to remember how like racism and white supremacy underpins so much of our economic structures, not only in Washington, but also the United States. And it's just great to know that the capital gains excise tax will start to address some of those structural harms.
And if people are interested in learning more, you know, you can check out episode one of WA Possible. Andy mentioned Mike Mitchell, he was part of that episode and he shared with us the connections between racism and the tax code. So you can go back to episode one if you haven't caught it yet.
And in March of this year, the state Supreme Court upheld the capital gains tax as a valid excise tax. So can you tell us a little bit more about what that decision means?
00:12:45] Andy: Yeah. So just to back up a bit here our state legislature passed the tax and Governor Inslee signed it into law in early . Shortly after that, a small handful of millionaires and far right anti-tax organizations challenged the law in court. We fully expected this. We knew they were going to do so.
They had a pretty ridiculous legal argument that the tax, which is clearly structured as an excise or a transactional tax on extreme profits from the sale of corporate stocks and bonds. They tried to argue that it's a property tax. And then they said, well, since it's a property tax, the restrictions that we have in our state constitution apply, such as a strict 1% rate limit. And so the tax was in violation of those property tax restrictions in our Constitution.
[00:13:37] April: So opponents were arguing that that the capital gains tax was a property tax, kind of like what we pay as homeowners and renters?
[00:13:45] Andy: Yeah, that may sound strange. And the state Supreme Court very much agreed [that it’s strange]. As you mentioned earlier, it was a pretty overwhelming 7-2 majority ruling. They found that this argument that it's somehow a property tax really didn't pass the smell test.
And what they did find, as you mentioned, is that the tax is a valid excise tax on the sale or exchange of financial assets when those transactions generate extreme profits. And that's very in line with many rulings they'd had upholding other excise taxes over the years and decades. So we have the state real estate excise tax, which is a tax on the sales of real estate. We have the state estate tax, which is a transfer excise tax on transferring large estates when a wealthy person dies. You know, and many other excise taxes on the books.
Of course what's different and important about this one is that it applies to extremely wealthy people, which is why they challenged it in court in the first place.
[00:14:45] April: I see. And so if opponents’ argument was actually that the capital gains tax is a property tax, how come we heard so much about the tax being an income tax?
[00:14:55] Andy: So in public communications, the opponents of the tax didn't talk a lot about this property tax argument much probably because they realize it sounded pretty ridiculous. And instead, they talked a lot about it being an income tax. Mostly, that's just sort of fear mongering that wealthy people do whenever you try to raise their taxes is they make this kind of a slippery slope argument that, oh, sure, you're just taxing the wealthy people now, but pretty soon, somehow it'll it'll become a tax on lower income people.
From a legal perspective, what they were trying to say on this is they were referring to a case from 1933 called Culliton v. Chase, in which the state Supreme Court overturned a very broad based personal income tax, finding that that tax was a tax on property. But in this case, the court was very clear that the capital gains excise tax was nothing like the broad based personal income tax that was struck down in Culliton. And importantly, they did not authorize the legislature to enact a broad based personal income tax. They just said, nope, this is very much a straight excise tax, like the many other excise taxes that we have on the books and left it there.
[00:16:12] April: So it's obviously not an income tax and it sounds like the only slippery slope here is one to more access to quality and affordable child care, better schools, and a more equitable tax code?
[00:16:26] Andy: That pretty much sums it up.
[00:16:29] April: That's great. So earlier you also mentioned that we have a regressive tax code in Washington state. Some of our listeners might already know what we mean by that, but could you explain it and share how we know that our tax code is the most regressive in the whole country?
[00:16:47] Andy: Yeah. So when we use these words like regressivity or progressivity, or talk about the tax code being upside-down, what we mean is that we're looking at the state and local tax code and how it affects people of different income levels. So from the poorest portions of the population all the way up to the richest 1%.
And when we do this, what we find is that when, if you like, say, the poorest fifth of the population, people earning less than $25,000 per year, they pay nearly 20% of their annual incomes in state and local taxes on average.
By contrast, if you look at the wealthiest 1% of households and to be in that group, you have to make a minimum of about $550,000 per year. That's just the threshold, the floor to be in that group. The average incomes among that group are much larger. The wealthiest, the 1% pay only 3% of their incomes in state and local taxes.
[00:17:46] So, again, you're looking at the poorest fifth of households who are paying almost a fifth, 20%, versus the top 1% who are paying less than 3%. And so that's really unbalanced. And the distance between those two has repeatedly found to be wider in Washington state than in any other state in the nation. So we have the most regressive or most upside-down tax code of any state in the country.
Of course, that's just looking at averages by income. If you look a little bit deeper about who's impacted, the story actually gets worse. It won't surprise you or many of the listeners that generations of discriminatory banking, employment, housing and other economic policies mean that people who are Black, Indigenous, mixed race, and even some Asian communities are much more likely to be in that very low income, very high taxed region of our state's population, whereas people who are in that top 1% are much more likely to be white.
[00:18:47] So you have a tax code that rather than pushing back against unjust, you know, injustices and inequalities in our economy are actually making them worse. And so, yeah, it's not good to have a regressive tax code. And that's why it's important that lawmakers acted in 2021 to take the meaningful steps towards creating a more just tax code.
[00:19:12] April: So now that we have the capital gains tax, which asks more of which asks more from the top earners, what are we doing about balancing things at the at the other end of the spectrum? Like how are we reducing the share for folks with lower incomes?
[00:19:28] Andy: So the other important thing that lawmakers did in 2021, and again, this was something that we and many partners have been working on for a long time, was enacting the Working Families Tax Credit. And that is an appropriately focused tax credit for people with lower or moderate incomes. You can get up to $1,200 per year under the Working Families Tax Credit, and that's a really big key change towards creating a more just and equitable tax code for people for which it matters. You know, people with low and moderate incomes who are paying those very high effective tax rates.
The program just went online in the last few weeks. There have already been over 150,000 signups for the program. So people are very much taking advantage of this. And again, it is really the most equitable, focused way to, you know, address the fact that our tax code is so regressive for people at the bottom end.
And so, yeah, there are two really important shifts that occurred in 2021, the capital gains tax, which will increase taxes a little bit for people at the very top, and the Working Families Tax Credit, which will make a meaningful change for people at the middle and the bottom of the income ladder.
[00:20:47] April: And so now we have the Working Families Tax Credit kind of helping folks, and that is really centered around helping folks living with lower to moderate incomes. Are there any things that we could do to improve the credit?
[00:21:01] Andy: Yeah, we still have a ways to go. The tax code is still going to be upside-down or regressive, but we're still working to fix that. And in fact, there are proposals before the legislature this year, that communities are strongly advocating for that would expand the Working Families Tax Credit and also increase it. So we get a larger number of people, both younger people and older retirees, that would be able to access it and the dollar amounts would go up.
And so, you know, as I mentioned before, we're in this for the long haul and we're going to keep fighting to get those expansions enacted as soon as possible.
[00:21:39] April: Making our tax code more equitable, it's just so clear that it is a worthwhile endeavor helping us kind of achieve that goal towards economic justice. And this is just one of the reasons why the capital gains excise tax is so awesome. The wealthiest millionaires and billionaires will finally start sharing more responsibility for funding important public services that we all rely on. So let's talk about some of the ways that different communities across Washington will benefit. How will the funds from the capital gains tax impact people living in rural Washington?
[00:22:13] Andy: The capital gains tax is going to be a huge boost for the quality of life in rural communities across our state. First, it's important to note that the vast majority of the tax is being paid by a few very wealthy people who live in the greater Seattle metro area. But the revenue from the tax is going to be distributed across the state and, you know, in ways that are going to be very important for rural communities.
I mentioned earlier that over 500,000 kids across our state don't have access to licensed child care. That problem is especially acute in rural areas of Washington state. In fact, if you look at just Douglas County, there are only enough child care slots to cover 38% of children under five. So that's over 60% of kids in Douglas County who don't have access to high quality child care.
But the revenues from the capital gains tax, which again are mostly coming from very wealthy people in the Seattle metro area, are going to, you know, start to shift the needle in rural places across the state, including Douglas County.
So, yeah, the capital gains tax and the Fair Start for Kids Act, which is that big expansion of child care and early learning that it funds are going to be really, really great for rural communities across the state.
[00:23:27] April: And how will, like kids in general across Washington benefit from the funds that come from the capital gains tax?
[00:23:35] Andy: Yeah, so it's cliche, but it's true when you look at the research that investing in our kids really is a way to a brighter future for us all. You know, the economic benefits of high quality, affordable early learning have been, you know, richly studied. And there's just the benefits are huge. We have studies showing that it's up to a 12 to 1 benefit cost ratio. So that means for every single dollar we invest in high quality early learning today for the kids and those parents, their lifetime earnings will go up by $12 down the line.
And that's just a huge boost both for them, for their quality of life - that's the most important thing - but also for, you know, our state and local economies. Those additional resources get channeled back into additional consumer spending and new jobs. And so, yeah, this heightened investment in early learning is going to be great for kids, great for communities, and great for our economy.
[00:24:36] April: And how will this be a boost for the business community?
[00:24:40] Andy: Business leaders have been calling for those for the benefits that I just mentioned for heightened investments in early learning for decades now. And they you know, it's good for their bottom line and their workers need, you know, childcare and high quality childcare. And so they really have been calling for that need to be met.
And it's also important to note that investing in schools and in early learning makes the state a more attractive place for people who want to live, work, raise a family, start a business. It also makes it attractive to out-of-state investors who are looking at, you know, the overall environment of a state and how they think their businesses they invest in will grow. So this is definitely going to be a boon for the business community as well as for people in communities.
[00:25:28] April: I love hearing about all the ways that communities will benefit once the revenue from the capital gains tax starts coming in. So it's really awesome to hear all that. And as you said before, there's still more work to do. So what are some of the next steps lawmakers need to take in creating a truly equitable state tax code?
[00:25:47] Andy: Yeah, so as I mentioned earlier, we really need to expand the Working Families Tax Credit so that younger workers and retirees can take advantage of it. We also need to increase the amount of the credit. $1,200 is great, but people are really struggling in a lot of ways and we can do more to create a more just tax code and provide better supports for everyone in our state. So we need to do that.
We need to start further reduce taxes for lower and middle income households. But we also need to keep demanding that the wealthiest households pay more. You know, even with the capital gains tax in place, the wealthiest households in our state are still going to have some of the lowest overall state and local tax rates in the nation.
And, you know, lawmakers are still are very likely going to be sued for underfunding special education and school construction and other things related to our education system. So we have a long way to go in terms of creating a better school system and investing in many other important community priorities. And so, you know, we need to continue to ask the wealthiest households to pay a bit more to, you know, build a higher quality of life for everybody.
[00:26:59] We at the Budget and Policy Center have produced a fact sheet – It's on our website for those of you who are interested – that lists a number of options that would generate over $7.2 billion over the next four years. All of which would come in a very equitable way. It would be paid by people, you know, in the wealthiest end of the income scale.
Just to name a few. There has been, some of your listeners may have heard about the wealth tax, which is a new 1% property tax on financial assets, over $250 million per year. As I said, this is referred to as the wealth tax that would generate billions of additional dollars in the coming years. Very important reform.
[00:27:42] There's also been discussions about adding a new top tier to the state real estate excise tax. So sales of real estate over $5 million would pay a slightly higher rate, and that could generate hundreds of millions of dollars for affordable housing.
And finally, our state estate tax, which we've had on the books for decades, a highly equitable tax on transfers of multimillion dollar estates. There's a lot we can do to increase and make that a more effective and equitable instrument for financing important community priorities.
So as I said, cumulatively, those three options alone would generate over $7 billion over the next four years. And when you combine them with expanding Working Families Tax Credit, you've done a lot to build a more equitable tax code and one that can really support our state and help us thrive in the years ahead.
[00:28:39] April: And just to kind of throw in a little bit of a personal spin on this, like I live in Spokane Valley and I have two kids in the public schools out here, and we recently got letters from the superintendent saying, hey, federal funding is running out and we're going to have to start making budget cuts.
And it just really feels unconscionable that that would happen in a state where the richest people like not even in the United States, the richest people on the planet, live here. And they're the people that can most afford to chip in a little bit to help fund things that all of our communities benefit from.
And so it's just one of those things where I'm like, how do we really share in the responsibility together to fund these things that everyone in our communities benefit from? And how do we really tell our kids, like, you're important and you're worth investing in? And as a state, we're going to make it happen because we have the wealthiest people here who can really help to chip in on it.
So thank you for sharing those other ideas about where we can be getting revenue because it's very clear that we can do it and that we should do it.
[00:29:53] Andy: I totally agree, April. And, you know, just to put things in perspective, 7.2 billion may be a large sounding number, but it is a tiny fraction of what any one of the cento-billionaires in our state pull in, in a given year. So it's really not too much to ask that we get more funding from the very wealthiest households to support our schools, our childcare, early learning, and the range of other things that communities need to, you know, be healthy and to drive a higher quality of life.
[00:30:28] April: Thank you, Andy, for sharing all of your knowledge and experience. It's been quite the journey and I'm looking forward to what else will be possible in the future.
If you're interested in learning more about our research on the capital gains excise tax, go to the Capital Gains Tax page in the Policy Priorities section of our website at budgetandpolicy.org. We will also include links to resources mentioned in this episode on our show notes, which you can find at budgetandpolicy.org/podcast.
And if you'd like to join us in our movement for tax justice, make sure you sign up for our emails and check out the Balance Our Tax Code coalition and Invest in Washington Now.
Thank you for listening to this bonus episode of WA Possible. We'll start working on episodes for season two soon, so if you have ideas for the show, please feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And if you haven't done so yet, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. It's an easy way to help more people find out about our work.
This podcast is sponsored by the Economic Security Project, the Washington State Council of Firefighters, AARP of Washington, and United Way of King County.
Our theme music was created by Spokane beatmaker Revanth Akella and the WA Possible logo was designed by Seattle-based artist Eileen Jimenez.
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Tuesday Jan 03, 2023
Inside how the Washington state legislature works
Tuesday Jan 03, 2023
Tuesday Jan 03, 2023
In the final episode of the season, Communications Specialist April Dickinson talks to Denisse Guerrero, the membership and policy manager of Washington Community Alliance, a statewide coalition of organizations and tribes led by and working in communities of color.
She shares her experience of working with the legislature, some of the challenges with the current system, and she talks about some reforms that we all could support that will improve our democracy.
And April speaks with our executive director at the Budget and Policy Center, Misha Werschkul, about her reflections about her career so far advocating for state policies that support the well-being of people in our state.
But before those conversations, we share a little explainer from the Washington State Legislative Information Center about what legislative session in Olympia looks like.
Theme music by Revanth Akella
Logo by Eileen Jimenez
Introduction and closing by Development Manager Madeleine Krass
Denisse Guerrero manages policy and membership for Washington Community Alliance (WCA). She grew up in Central Washington, graduating from East Valley in Yakima. She started her organizing work during her time at Whitworth University where she would engage students in the legislature to fight for an increase and more secure funding for post-secondary education and expanding access to other post-secondary credentials. She has been organizing with WCA since 2019 and recently became a board member for the Washington Bus.
Misha Werschkul (she/her) is a leading voice shaping the debate in Washington state on budget priorities and economic policies. She's a policy wonk at heart and a relentless believer in the importance of people joining together to make change. She has more than two decades of policy and legislative experience and is eager to build on this experience with an openness to new ideas and approaches, especially about how to bring racial equity into policymaking and organizational processes.
You’re most likely to find Misha working with partners to craft policy proposals and build coalitions around statewide progressive revenue, economic, and racial justice issues. She also serves on the board of directors of Balance Our Tax Code and the SEIU Benefits Group.
In her spare time, Misha tries to be outside as much as possible. Some of her favorite activities are gardening in her taxpayer-supported neighborhood community garden, backpacking with friends in the publicly funded Olympic National Park, and paddleboarding in Lake Washington.
Washington State Legislature website: leg.wa.gov
Legislative Information Center explainer: Understanding the legislative process
*Our small but mighty team is working on editing the full transcript for accuracy, which takes time. It will be posted as soon as it is completed.
Tuesday Jan 03, 2023
Why the state budget must reflect community values
Tuesday Jan 03, 2023
Tuesday Jan 03, 2023
In this episode, we share a Budget 101 presentation that Policy Analyst Tracy Yeung gave recently to the Racial Equity Team, a group of lobbyists who advocate on issues related to racial, social, and economic justice at the Washington State Legislature. Tracy shares why the state budget is important, what the budget entails, and how it’s passed through the legislature. You’ll also hear a brief Q&A from the meeting.
This presentation includes references to the legislative process, which we cover in detail in our last episode. And it refers to some slides that were shared during the presentation. We will include links to helpful resources below.
Theme music by Revanth Akella
Logo by Eileen Jimenez
Introduction and closing by Senior Fellow Andy Nicholas
Tracy Yeung (she/her) is a member of our research and policy team, focusing on population health in Washington state. She currently holds a State Policy Fellowship through the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ two-year national fellowship program. She was previously the 2020-2021 Betty Jane Narver Policy Fellow at the Budget & Policy Center. Tracy has also worked at the Chinese Information Service Center as a family caregiver support specialist and later as an in-home care case manager, mainly serving low-income, limited-English speaking, and elderly families. Tracy has a master’s degree in public health from the Community-Oriented Public Health Program at the University of Washington.
Chart: A look at what was funded in the 2022 supplemental budget
Chart: State funding for community priorities is still below 1995-97 investments
Schmudget Blog: Final budget agreement makes important advancements for Washington state
*Our small but mighty team is working on editing the full transcript for accuracy, which takes time. It will be posted as soon as it is completed.
Tuesday Jan 03, 2023
Why cash policies are essential and what’s next in Washington state
Tuesday Jan 03, 2023
Tuesday Jan 03, 2023
In this episode, Working Families Tax Credit Campaign Manager Emily Vyhnanek spoke with coalition member Alizeh Bhojani, who was Policy Counsel at OneAmerica at the time of this recording, both of whom are dedicated advocates for the enactment of state level policies that give cash back to the people who most need it. They talk about their experiences advocating for the Working Families Tax Credit, Unemployment Insurance for undocumented workers, and the Washington Immigrant Relief Fund.
Theme music by Revanth Akella
Logo by Eileen Jimenez
Introduction and closing by Campaign Communication Specialist Leila Reynolds
Working Families Tax Credit website
Washington COVID-19 Immigrant Relief Fund
Unemployment for Undocumented Workers
*Our small but mighty team is working on editing the full transcript for accuracy, which takes time. It will be posted as soon as it is completed.
Tuesday Jan 03, 2023
On the path to abolishing legal system fines and fees in Washington
Tuesday Jan 03, 2023
Tuesday Jan 03, 2023
The Budget and Policy Center is part of a statewide coalition that seeks to not only reform Washington state's system of legal financial obligations (LFOs, or fines and fees), but to eventually abolish it. Leading this work on our staff is Senior Policy Analyst Evan Walker.
In this episode of our podcast, Evan speaks with two members of Washington state’s LFO coalition: Chanel Rhymes, the Director of Advocacy for the Northwest Community Bail Fund and Prachi Dave, Managing Director of Policy and Advocacy at Civil Survival.
Their conversation explores ideas of justice, the rippling effects of LFO debt, and the short- and long-term goals of the LFO coalition. This episode also asks all of us to consider how we might start to build a system that provides people with the resources they need and that makes true accountability possible.
Theme music by Revanth Akella
Logo by Eileen Jimenez
Introduction and closing by Communications Director Melinda Young-Flynn
Chanel Rhymes (she/her) is the Director of Advocacy for the Northwest Community Bail Fund (NCBF). The Northwest Community Bail Fund is a nonprofit organization advocating for bail reform and working to minimize the harms of the cash bail system by paying bail for people who would otherwise spend the pretrial time in jail while awaiting routine court appearances. NCBF's work focuses on supporting the most targeted and marginalized communities to assert their legal right to the presumption of innocence and their constitutionally protected right to bail. NCBF opposes pretrial detention and cash bail which harm communities and are racist, classist, and ableist. NCBF currently operates in King, Snohomish, and Pierce Counties in Washington State.
Prachi Dave (she/her) is the Managing Director of Policy and Advocacy at Civil Survival. During her legal career, Prachi has been a public defender in Colorado, and has engaged in litigation and policy advocacy with an aim towards transforming the criminal legal landscape. In various roles, she has worked on the problems relating to legal financial obligations in the state of Washington and how the system of legal financial obligations has contributed to mass incarceration through debtors prisons.
Northwest Community Bail Fund
Brief: It's time to reform Washington's harmful system of fines and fees by Evan Walker and Andy Nicholas
Fines and Fees Justice Center
[00:00:00] Chanel Rhymes: We actually do have a Washington Administrative Code in some of these state agencies that says they will waive the debts that are owed to them after three years. But they don't follow them. They don't even follow their own policy. So the fact that we have this on our books, it's available to do, but people won't utilize it is also a problem.
And I really want to hammer home. It's just a waste of money. Our court system should not be funded on the backs of poor people.
[00:00:38] Melinda Young-Flynn: Welcome to WA Possible, a podcast about what is possible for economic justice in Washington state. This podcast is presented by the Washington State Budget & Policy Center, a research and policy organization working to advance progressive state budget and tax policies that promote racial equity and economic dignity at the Budget & Policy Center. We dream of a brighter future where everyone has a home to rest in, families can afford child and elder care, and people have enough money to buy the food and resources they need.
On WA Possible, we talk with partners, advocates and our staff who are helping make this vision a reality. We know that economic justice is possible here in Washington State because we are building toward it together.
I'm Melinda Young Flynn, director of communications at the Washington State Budget & Policy Center, and I'm pleased to introduce today's episode. It's well known that the criminal legal system in Washington, like in the U.S., is overwhelmingly harmful toward communities of color, especially Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities. If you're not directly impacted by or working in the criminal legal system, you may not be aware that Washington state's court funding is tied to a system of financial punishment of individuals called legal financial obligations or LFOs.
LFOs are fines and fees imposed upon people throughout their interaction with the criminal legal system. They include charges for DNA collection, access to public defender services, jail bookings, and many other costs. Each year, about 70% of Washington's residents who receive court mandated fines or fees cannot afford to pay them. In fact, a person's debt from foes can easily add up to thousands of dollars and create devastating financial pressures for them and their families.
Lack of payment toward this debt can also result in garnishment when money from wages, tax credits and other income is withheld by the state. For people caught in the legal system, these costs can create or deepen other traumas, including health issues or homelessness. Too often, the impact of LFO debt ultimately harms the children and loved ones of those convicted. These monetary sanctions can easily become an additional sentence that looms over a person's life and their family's life, well beyond their time incarcerated.
The Budget & Policy Center is part of a statewide coalition that seeks to not only reform the system of fines and fees, but to eventually abolish it. Leading this work on our staff as senior policy analyst Evan Walker. In this episode of our podcast, Evans speaks with two members of Washington state's LFO Coalition, Chanel Rhymes, the director of advocacy for the Northwest Community Bail Fund, and Prachi Dave, Managing Director of Policy and Advocacy at Civil Survival. That was Chanel speaking at the top of this episode.
Their conversation explores ideas of justice, the rippling effects of LFO debt, and the short- and long-term goals of the LFO Coalition. This episode also asks all of us to consider how we might start to build a system that provides people with the resources they need and that makes true accountability possible.
Let's get to the interview.
[00:03:54] Evan Walker: I'm just getting ready to have this conversation about LFOs and what we see is possible in Washington state with not only LFO reform, but working toward LFO abolition and dismantling of the system. So, Chanel, I wanted to ask you, do you think that people on both sides of the convicted offense are brought closer to justice with assessing fines and fees and restitution?
[00:04:26] Chanel: I would first say, you know, what is justice? Everybody has a different definition or sense of what they think justice is. Right now, it's very hard to even answer that because so many people have a different idea of what justice is. Personally, I believe that, to answer your question, no, it doesn't.
On one hand, it continues to keep people in poverty. You know, having a criminal conviction is already a barrier to many, many things, whether that be housing or employment. So just adding on this other additional barrier that is financial, especially with the world that we live in right now with the rising costs of housing, food, basic needs are just a lot more expensive. You know, the cost of living here in the Seattle area has gone up 10.1% since June of last year. So, no, in a sense, it doesn't.
And then on the other side, what I don't think people realize is that even in cases where there is restitution, it's not that that money is immediately going to the, quote unquote victim or the person harmed. There is a lot of hands that reach into that pot before the actual person who's ordered on that court order or restitution is given any money. And a lot of times if you have people that are indigent, low income, they're going to be paying, very probably, a low dollar amount per month, maybe anywhere from $15 to $25.
And all of that little bit of money has to get divided up into different places. And so the last person on that list is typically the person that the restitution is going to. So, no. It's not like folks are immediately getting any kind of relief or made whole again. So, in a sense, I would say, no. I don't think it does.
[00:06:26] Evan: Yeah, I think we can dig into what we might see justice as. And I think you were sort of getting there at the end, of justice being something where a person is made whole after being harmed. Needing to fill in gaps where there has been damage to something. But is that just about the two people that were involved? Or who do you see as like…I'm just curious of your thoughts there.
[00:06:53] Chanel: I think I know where you’re going…yeah, families. Families, the children of the formerly incarcerated, the community that the formerly incarcerated came from. Everybody pays. And to be quite honest, that person may have done their time, but then once they're out, their family and their children do the time, too. Because all of the other barriers that they are facing once released are being pushed on to those other people.
And our state, or at least our governor has recognized – December of 2021, Inslee issued an executive order, executive order 2105, which is basically the state saying we need to work to reduce generational poverty. They've recognized that it's an issue and they're calling on the Office of Equity to facilitate policy and system change within our agencies to essentially stop creating these poverty wheels that people are just constantly, constantly on.
And I think, too, folks that are creating policy, folks that are enforcing policy, need to also remember that whatever you're doing is not just right here happening to that individual person. There are going to be people who are affected by that. And if we really care about our futures, we should be worried about the children, about people's children and what they are going through. Because essentially we're just setting them up to go back into that cycle and then repeat all of this.
People that are formerly incarcerated or lower income families have a higher rate of coming in contact with the criminal punishment system. So right then and there, it's like we are just constantly on this wheel. If we're criminalizing, say, homelessness or charging people with crimes based essentially on the fact that they're homeless, and then we also know that one of the main reasons why people can't find housing is because of a criminal conviction, what is this wheel that we're on? What are we doing? How is that a good use of our funds, of our tax dollars? Essentially, too, because we're paying, taxpayers are paying for this.
[00:09:17] Evan: Yeah. And I just want to reiterate what you said at the top as well, that assessing fines and fees adds to that, it adds to somebody's inability to being able to access housing. It also can prolong somebody's ability to clear their record, right? And be able to access future resources, right?
[00:09:40] Chanel: Future Resources. It can bar them from employment. We have a lot of employers now check people's credit scores. I mean, your credit score getting checked for you to get a job to get housing to get… We are essentially like, you know, yeah we outlawed debtors prisons but you know in real life we haven't. And we would have better return on investment to invest that within programs, resources that actually help folks, or even in just education itself.
We're very low on the scale for funding education. I mean, our state, we were sued because we weren't properly funding education. So, we could be doing better things with our dollars. And we also have the data to show that those things work. So that's another thing, is that we're just completely ignoring what we know to work and research and data that we have. And a lot of these policies and things are made on conjecture and feelings and not real actual facts.
[00:10:40] Evan: Yeah, no, absolutely. And Prachi, I want to also open that question up to you. Does your head go in the same way around what justice means? And also, who's involved and what that looks like? I'm curious to know what you think.
[00:10:53] Prachi: You know, I absolutely agree with what Chanel said about notions of justice being different depending on who you are, your life experiences and policy lens that you're utilizing, so on and so forth. And I will say that – and I think Chanel could definitely speak better to this – if historically what we had done at the very least was geared towards the notion of justice being the notion of justice that is carried by people who are impacted by the system, we would have been in a much better position right now.
We didn't. So, we find ourselves in the situation where, how many human beings have been trampled under the weight of the system because we simply didn't do that? I think that people are, at the very least at this moment in time, recognizing that it's incredibly important.
And ideally, we will evolve to a point where this will be kind of the primary lens with which we are viewing policy changes. Which is to view those policy changes and enact those policy changes through the lens of people who are impacted. So, ideally, we'll reach this point in time in the future where some of those notions of justice will come together, because it is aligned with the ideas of people who are actually impacted by the system.
[00:12:21] Prachi: One of the things that I do think is interesting and I think we've all seen is – and Chanel, you pointed this out, as well – that when you're talking about LFOs, the concept that it just doesn't make economic sense is an area where there has been some kind of coalescence. You know, for me, I don't think it's a good system regardless.
If we can develop a coalescence around the fact that this is simply not the way that our system should be funded. This is particularly true in the state of Washington. Washington has a system, a court system particularly, that is not unified. And that means that it is funded at one of the lowest levels in the entire country by the state. But a lot of the services that people are saying that they want perhaps should be funded. It just shouldn’t be funded off the backs of individual users.
And I think those notions of justice are at least something that perhaps we can create some common understanding around. I think that maybe that's the direction that we're seeing. And I'm hoping that that is the direction that's going to push us into that ultimate policy position we want to see ourselves in, which is the ultimate eradication of these LFOs that are being imposed on individual users, quote unquote in the system.
[00:13:44] Evan: Thank you for that. And I actually think the undercurrent of what you were talking about leads me to the next question here, and that's how have you seen clients and people you advocate with and for be affected by reentry after they're serving time with outstanding debt and LFOs How are they affected by reentry with having this debt?
[00:14:11] Prachi: One of the things that I always want to point out – because I do think that some people know about this, but then there are still large swaths of people who simply don't know – that there is a very, very common mechanism, even post-incarceration, for systems to collect on debt. And that is to use the coercive effect of a warrant and jail time.
In the state of Washington, we had very, very commonly employed the system of debtors prisons where you would say that a person has, as a part of their sentence, LFOs that they haven't paid, automatically - without any consideration of whether or not the person didn't have the resources, was unable to pay those LFOs – a warrant would be issued. That person would be brought into court and, without consideration of their financial circumstances at all, the person would be sentenced to jail. That would be done on a day-by-day basis. You owe X amount of LFOs. You can discharge that debt at $50 per day in your local jail. That is an incredible impediment on individuals.
I cannot imagine – but a lot of people don't have to imagine because they've lived through this – the concept of being ripped away from your life and then being told to spend several days in jail in order to discharge this debt, which everyone knew you couldn't pay in the first place.
So, I would say that spending any amount of time in jail because of your LFO debt is something that is an incredible impediment to reentry. You're going to lose your job. You're going to lose your housing. Your family relies on you. And that reliance is impacted by your ability to do that. There are, of course – and Chanel referenced some of these earlier – there are some legal ramifications of having LFOs on your record. In the state of Washington, if you have outstanding LFOs, you can't vacate your conviction. And one of the major benefits of being able to vacate your conviction in Washington is to be able to go out into the world and say, no, I was not convicted of this crime. I wasn't convicted.
[00:16:35] Prachi: And that's really important, because as Chanel said, a lot of employers do background checks. A lot of housing providers do background checks. And they want to be able to exclude people on the basis of prior criminal history. I can't think of where many people would be if they don't have those fundamental resources available for them.
How do you develop that intergenerational wealth? How do you develop that stability for yourself and your family? And I think that that's really important for us to consider on a daily basis – what I would imagine is terrifying notion, constantly – that these are things that are not going to be as available to you as for other people.
You know, as a person who has practiced, and has represented clients, I will say from a first-person, that kind of contact, with my clients and representing people, we know this is not a surprise. This is a very unfortunate reality. Which is that all of these systems racially disproportionately impact individuals. In the system, whether or not you're captured in the system. But also, there's been research that's been done that says that people who are BIPOC are more likely to carry these debts for a longer time. That has an impact on people in reentry because it is incredibly hard to think about debt and how do you overcome that?
[00:18:05] Prachi: Just think about the conversations that everyone has been having about student debt relief and how important it is to be able to let go of that debt. For people to be able to make choices, free choices, moving forward without the consideration of their debt. The other piece in the state of Washington is that, for people with disabilities, for example, there are many people who, in addition to other issues, are living on very, very limited incomes.
And while the state of Washington, our courts have said courts cannot – and I obviously agree – that they should not be able to extract money from those limited incomes in order to pay LFO debt. It still means that people with very limited incomes do have that outstanding LFO debt. Some of that debt can't be waived on the backend. Some of that debt is mandatory debt.
And if you go to a court and you say I do not have any resources to pay. I am on a certain kind of public benefit. I cannot pay this. The court says my hands are tied. So what does that person do when they are in a situation where they have this debt hanging over them? Incredibly limited resources? That means that other kinds of things, like Chanel mentioned, like the vacate option is even less available to a certain group of people who we've already, as a society, marginalized in so many different ways.
So those are some instances in the way that LFOs impact people's reentry outcomes and opportunities. There are so many, many others, and people who are impacted are the people who can speak most heavily to what those look like.
[00:19:49] Evan: Thank you for all of that. And I'm curious really quick too, Prachi, in your experience, from what you've seen, who benefits from the debt that is created? Who benefits from the system or from assessing that debt?
[00:20:06] Prachi: I would say one of the primary beneficiaries of the debt that's been created is the third-party collection agency system. In the state of Washington, we have created a network of statutes that allows for counties, for example, courts to contract with collection agencies for the collection of LFO debt. And when they are contracted with, when that gets transferred over for the purposes of collection to a collection agency, nobody engages in an ability-to-pay analysis.
That is, nobody asks, Hey, was this person able to pay the debt in the first place? Can this person pay this debt now? Will this person be able to pay the debt in the future? That's bad enough because it happens without the person even knowing and it happens without any conceptualization of whether or not a person can pay this debt.
But oftentimes, and I will say that I have not seen a contract in which this doesn't happen, collection agencies will add additional fees. In the state of Washington, you can add 100% fee on a $100 balance, but under that you can add a 50% fee. So, without a person knowing that you can have 50% of your principal balance be added on when it gets transferred to a collection agency.
That is a tremendous amount of money. That is a shocking amount of money. And of course, the collection agency collects some of that money. It’s a private entity. It's a private for-profit entity. That is the way in which its business structure functions and operates. So, I would say that the utilization of collection agencies in the state of Washington, having them collect some of those monies from people who simply are not able to pay, those entities are some of the primary beneficiaries of the way in which our current LFO collections in the state of Washington.
[00:22:12] Evan: Yeah. Thank you. And I'm curious, Chanel, for what you have to add to this. I think just a continued part of really what's underlying both these questions, too, is that- That's the fundamental thing here, is that people just straight up don't have the money and they're expected to go through experiences in jail and incarceration and debt and everything that accompanies those experiences. And so I'm curious, Chanel, if you want to expand on that and also add your thoughts to what we were just sharing.
[00:22:51] Chanel: You know, like you said, folks don't have the money. But I also think- It's not real money. It's really like numbers on a screen. And I will say, last April, the Fines and Fees Justice Center released a report, and it says how much criminal justice debt does the U.S. really have?
And they estimate it's somewhere at least $27.6 billion. They did two years’ worth of surveys and out of – they tried to get information from all states. I think only 14 states were able to give full data on their debt and Washington was one of them. However, Washington has the highest LFO debt per capita out of all 50 states.
It’s $426. So that would mean every Washington resident would have $426 in debt. And that's just ridiculous. They've provided recommendations on what states should do and one of those things is, after three years, you shouldn't even be trying to collect the debt. It's a waste of tax dollars and tax resources. I will also add, though, that, with Washington, people like to say we're very progressive and ahead and certain things.
And, we actually do have a Washington Administrative Code in some of these state agencies that says they will waive the debts that are owed to them after three years. But they don't follow them. They don't even follow their own policy. So the fact that we have this on our books, it's available to do, but people won't utilize it is also a problem.
[00:24:32] Chanel: And I really want to hammer home. It's just a waste of money. Our court system should not be funded on the backs of poor people. They are accessed by all citizens. All citizens should be paying for these courts. Meaning we need to get rid of court costs altogether, all the way.
We are a very rich state. We have money here. We could fund our courts probably off the backs of two rich people here alone. I think we just got to really, really keep hammering home that it's just not financially sound. It's just not. Even just the administrative part of it, of record keeping, of trying to make sure that this is paid, and this person goes to collections, and all that. It doesn't make sense.
And we are paying for it essentially because the people that we keep assessing these fines to can't really afford to pay for it.
[00:25:37] Evan: Right. Yeah. And I think with that, too, I think about just this cycle that you both have brought up, as well, of just- let's say if you are incarcerated and you leave with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, how are you supposed to pay that back? Like, in what ways – and I think you both said this also in a different way is – how are you supposed to set your life up or what type of services are providing people to come back to? To not only – I think, Chanel, you said this at the start – to make your rent, to ensure that you've got money for bills and everything. And as the cost of everything is increasing, how are you supposed to meet all of those demands and also begin to put a chip into that debt that is also increasing with interest?
I think that you both have just alluded to so many different aspects of this apparatus, or just these different parts of it where it's really set up in a multitude of ways to ensure that there's more money put on top of the amount that people owe, to make them pay.
And I think another point that you've also brought up earlier is what other system that we have, especially like a governance system, is like this and is able to run like this? Go ahead.
[00:27:15] Chanel: I was just going to say, I don't even think people realize the real-life, long-term effects of- Okay, somebody – and I'm not talking about, you know, $1,000 of court fines or restitution. We have people, myself, my restitution is in the six figures. I was fortunate enough to have it pulled out of collections and take away the collection fees, but that interest has brought it right back up to where it was.
Or even folks that have- Let's say you got $18,000 you owe to a state agency. And then they now garnish you and they're garnishing you at $200 a month. There's no way somebody is going to pay off $18,000 at $200 a month. How are they going to do that? And so, then that's like, you've got somebody with a garnishment just on their record for forever? And they will never be able to get a house, they'll never be- just forever.
So also, at that, we are stunting people from being able to even try to bring themselves up out of poverty. Us, as a state, are inhibiting our own citizens from moving up the economic- Essentially, that's what we're doing. If those are your policies, that's your practice, that's what you're ultimately saying is you have to stay here. We don't care. But then in the same token, demonize those folks and asking them why can't you pull yourself out? We're gaslighting people, in a sense.
[00:28:55] Evan: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And obviously the effects are- I mean, I would just say for the sake of this conversation – it goes to both people of citizenship status and non-citizenship status too, right? Everybody that is living in the state, it does impact everybody potentially, right? And if you are interacting with the punishment system or, like we said, you're a family member, it is so far-reaching. And I just wanted to underscore that point.
[00:29:39] Chanel: I should have said residents, not citizens. It's all people that are here residing within this state. Whether you are documented or undocumented, we are all affected by it.
[00:29:51] Evan: Yeah, exactly. Well, to kind bring us out of underscoring this problem in so many different ways, which I think we've done a solid job at, I want to move us in this direction of – and Chanel you've alluded to the front end of this – getting to folks before somebody is even in a position to- or improving people's conditions so they might not be in a position where something happens and harm is caused.
So, I just want to ask why would funding support services for people be cheaper – and more than just cheaper, I feel like that the word doesn't do enough justice, but why would it have better outcomes for public safety and people and their lives than incarceration and the results of not being able to pay, and debt? I'm wondering if you could elaborate there.
[00:30:56] Chanel: Well, I would say one, we just already know, for example, with education. You put a certain amount of dollars within education, you're going to get an even a larger return on that dollar that you invested. We can also think about it in the same context of services that people need, such as substance disorder treatment. Whether it be rental assistance, food, mental health treatment. If those folks had those things, do you think they would have any type of interaction with the criminal punishment system?
No, because their needs are met. When we meet people's needs, there's no need for that. And public safety goes up because everyone is safe. I think, right now there's a big talk about crime is on the rise and all of these things are going on. But really what it is, is poverty is more visible and people are associating that with crime.
You know, people are hurting. Everyone is. We were just in a pandemic. We still are. I do not care what anybody else says, we are still in it.
[00:32:08] Evan: Yeah, we are.
[00:32:11] Chanel: Because people out here, you know us regular folks are still feeling what has happened over that. We had a two-year period where everything was upended. Our courts have stalled. You think about that people cases are just lingering. They were already lingering long before that, and now we have that.
And so, we just need to recognize that people are hurting. Punishment is not working. We have been doing the same thing for many, many, many decades. And we are still getting the same outcomes. So let's not try something new that has been tried on smaller scales and they seem to be having great outcomes.
I will say, another good resource: beyondcourts.org. They have a lot of good information on how to address some of these things and one of the things they have is a toolkit on questions to consider when you're trying to remove the courts from adjudicating harm. There are ton of data and research and real lived experiences that we could look to to do this the right way.
It really doesn't make sense to me that we even have to explain this. That if you were to help somebody get mental health care, that you cannot have the wherewithal, the thought to think that, okay, then they probably wouldn't have come in contact with the police. How is that so hard for people to make those connections?
It really baffles me. And so then I kind of go back to we have a big lack of empathy right now in this society. And very individualistic, you need to handle your stuff by yourself. Or, I've got mine, you better figure out how you get yours. And we really just can't be that way because, we say that we're not, but our actions are saying otherwise.
[00:34:25] Evan: There's one thing that you said that I just want to highlight again – and I don't know if it's from beyondcourts.org – but you said remove the courts from adjudicating harm. And to me in my head too I see that as remove the courts from adjudicating the violence and trauma of poverty and the violence and trauma of just living, right? I don't know, I just really like that, so I just want to also lift that up.
Prachi, what do you think are the short-term needs that help build toward the long-term goal of fines and fees abolition? And what are changes to or current laws and tools that exist? What are the things that you see that need to happen right now to help us get sustained over the long run to what's possible here?
[00:35:16] Prachi: I think that's a great question, especially in the context of some of the things that you mentioned Chanel and also some of the things that we are experiencing in the state of Washington right now. I think that when we think about short-term and long-term goals, certainly some of them may seem more expansive than others. But I think we can also look to other states that have accomplished a lot of this already.
For example, for a little bit of background, in the state of Washington, the Supreme Court last year found that simple drug possession, at least that statute, is unconstitutional. And what that resulted in was the necessity for relief, certainly for people moving forward, but the conceptualization of relief retroactively. This is something that our structures and our systems are not necessarily accustomed to grappling with.
They don't understand retroactive relief in the same way as they understand proactive relief, or to understand the motion that comes to them. But they don't necessarily understand changing the entire system of the way that they do things to basically say, listen, figuratively, I'm going up to a person's doorstep and I'm saying, here's your check. Or I'm going up to a person's doorstep and saying, hey, this debt, which, by the way, we knew you could never pay, is a debt that you should no longer be required to pay. That burden has been lifted from you.
That, given everything that we've been experiencing in the state of Washington, certainly over the last year and a half, I don’t think that that's not a viable short-term goal. Understanding what the retroactive impact has been on people and really grappling with that. And thinking about, well, listen, if WSIPP (Washington State Institute for Public Policy) did a study that says that the rate of collection on LFOs is so abysmally low that we actually can’t fund our court system, then this is a policy goal that we really should be working towards.
[00:37:28] Prachi: And I think that not only is it necessary, but I think that maybe my question I was getting towards or also talking about is there is a community-based responsibility here. Do we engage in the kind of widespread harm reduction practices, right? Individuals on their own have a lot on their plates and they can’t constantly be coming to court to say, hey, I can't afford to pay this.
Individuals are resilient. They're amazing. They find ways around it. It doesn’t mean that's not causing them harm on a daily basis. So why can't we take some of these lessons that we've learned, apply them in the short-term, and give people relief where we know it's possible? And certainly – not that I'm saying this is a factor – but certainly we know it's not going to be damaging to the funding structure overall.
I think if we do that, it will stand us in good stead for the longer-term goals here. The longer-term goals here are to reduce harm for individuals and, in order to push on. The state wants certain policy goals to be funded. The state should fund those, they shouldn’t be funded – I think this is a theme throughout this conversation – on the backs of individuals.
So, let's utilize those structures that utilize those ways of thinking. A lot of education. We're already there. Many people are recognizing this, right? Like, this is just not working. These are broken systems. So, let's utilize all of that work that we've done in order to build towards that long-term solution. And in doing so, you achieve the goal that a lot of system's players appear to want to achieve, which is a more widespread faith in these systems.
[00:39:24] Prachi: Right now, that trust I don't think exists. The trust between communities and their courts. The trust between communities and law enforcement mechanisms. Those don't exist. But in a context where, some of those institutions can come together and say, hey, we're here to remedy some of these harms. Perhaps that will go an inch towards actually doing that, actually repairing some of these relationships.
So, I do think that there are practical things that we can start doing right now in order to set ourselves up for long term success. And I think that we have to understand that there are some intangibles here, right? There are some intangibles here that perhaps we won't be able to necessarily measure by a study from WSIPP or something like that, even if we’d like to. Not that there aren't ways for us to try to do that. But they are going to be incredibly important. It’s important for individuals in the state of Washington to feel comfortable around institutions that are fundamentally meant to protect them.
They're meant to serve them. And I think that that's really important for us to arrive back at a core understanding of what these institutions are actually there for. I think there are concrete steps we can take. They have reverberating benefits that accrue to us all, which I think is really what we're talking about, because the system right now, it doesn't have benefits that accrue either to the system or to individuals.
That’s the way in which I’m thinking about the short term and the long term. Of course, as we all know, LFOs are embedded in a series of statutory networks. I think that we are all engaged in the work of undoing some of that. And I think that is work that we will continue to do, and I think is necessary both here and, frankly, across the country.
[00:41:40] Evan: Something that you talked about, and I kind of want to combine two questions, so forgive me. But, you brought up retroactive relief. And you brought up what that looks like in the short term. Are you excited about what that might look like in the long term? And also, what are you most excited about with what we can do with LFO, both dismantling, changes, everything.
And also, what would proper retroactive relief look like? I think you gave us a really great example, but I think you're talking about so much more there that both of you have alluded to already. But yeah, I was just wondering if you can give me what you're excited about. What does that look like long term or what's the possibility there with proper retroactive relief?
[00:42:30] Prachi: Yeah, absolutely. I agree. There's the minimum standard for retroactive relief. Which is you gave us X amount of money. Here is X amount of money back. But as we expand outwards from that kind of poor understanding of what the retroactive relief means, we go towards some of the things that we've been talking about throughout this conversation, which are like, how do you go back and really conceptualize and think about the ways in which these systems have harmed people?
There are ways in which to quantify those, for sure. But, there are also ways in which, the state can certainly go back and say, hey, we understand that we cannot- we don't have, currently, the benefit of time travel, right? But what we can certainly do is set up, for example, a fund.
We set up a fund in order to say, you are a person who had this conviction. As a result of that conviction, you were unable to get access to- name it: We've talked about housing, employment, education, whatever it is. How can you draw from this fund in order to drive your progress forward? I don't think we should limit our notions of justice – maybe going back to the very beginning of the conversation – to purely what you can derive from an account balance.
There are these different harms. The legal system quantifies these harms every single day. What are damages if not a quantification of the different kinds of crimes that people have faced via the legal system. And so absolutely, I think that there are different ways to think about those. I'm excited about the way in which, different systems are really thinking about that right now, potentially really working together in order to say hey, yes, absolutely.
The one example which is Blake, considering the war on drugs and considering the incredible harms that have resulted from that. People are engaging in not only an acknowledgment but a reckoning. And what I am excited about is the way in which those lessons will spread into some of these other areas that we are talking about, and certainly talking about throughout this conversation.
[00:44:52] Evan: Yeah. Thank you. And Chanel, what makes you most excited about what you're doing and where our fight is going? And is there anything you want to add in terms of what you hope to see and where our work well will take us in the future?
[00:45:08] Chanel: Yeah. I'm excited that, it’s seeming to me- I've been in criminal punishment reform work for a long time. The conversation is changing and that's exciting. And people are starting to look at the whole like, wait a minute, how do we stop this from here? Instead of trying to correct mistakes. I am excited that people are trying to look ahead and seeing, how do we stop this from the beginning?
Also, I think with what Prachi said, I'm excited that people are acknowledging it. You know, summer of 2020, the Supreme Court issued a letter to court officers saying the court needs to recognize its role in systemic racism. That's a move forward. Now, what would be great is if people remember that they issued that letter and continue that years on down the line, and now.
But, we're moving. We've had legislation that has come up that has made some changes. It's not all of what we wanted, but it is progress. So, I'm excited about that. I'm excited that, they're creating a task force to bring everyone to the table and talk about this thing.
And I'm just excited that you are even doing something, that the Washington [State] Budget & Policy Center is even interested in this. And the fact that you've got a Budget & Policy center coming in to try to work with criminal punishment reform, it's being talked about in a different setting. That's awesome. But that's what excites me.
And I think too, just the conversations that folks are having about it just not being financially sustainable. Finally, we are getting that through to people. I mean, it's very, very small, but it is slowly seeping in that it's- we can't keep doing this. We don't have the money. So, I think those are the things that I'm really most excited about.
[00:47:06] Evan: Amazing. Well, thank you. Is there any other soundbite or plug that you would love for us to add in? I just wanted to make sure that I capture anything else, if you'd like to say.
[00:47:18] Chanel: I would just say if you are needing more education, information, toolkits on changing the criminal punishment system, and also how to speak to other folks who do not agree with some of what you're saying in changing the criminal punishment system, I would really check out Beyond Courts’ website. They have a wellspring of resources. And they really break it down in a very clear manner. It's easily attainable, lots of infographics and stories. And it's not like dry, wonky policy things. It's actually something people will be interested in, they'll really want to delve into.
[00:48:00] Evan: Amazing, thank you. Prachi, anything?
[00:48:04] Prachi: I think the only thing that I will say is that if you're getting the sense from this conversation that the imposition of this criminal system debt is widespread, it is even more widespread than you think. And people on the daily are carrying even more debt than you would think that they are in connection to their case.
We are trying to talk about the magnitude of the problem. We are being hopeful about the future. But the problem is still of a magnitude that deserves immediate attention. And so, thank you so much, Evan, for engaging in a practice of bringing attention to it.
[00:48:49] Melinda: We're grateful to Evan, Chanel, and Prachi for having this conversation. You can learn more about Chanel and Prachi’s important work by checking out links to their organizations in our show notes. There, you can also find a link to the 2022 brief that Evan co-wrote with Budget & Policy Center senior fellow Andy Nicholas: It's time to reform Washington's harmful system of fines and fees. Additional resources and a transcript of this episode are also in the show notes and on our website at budgetandpolicy.org/podcast.
Thank you for listening to WA Possible. This podcast is sponsored by the Economic Security Project, the Washington State Council of Firefighters, AARP of Washington, and Seattle Children's Hospital. Our theme music was created by Spokane beatmaker Revanth Akella and the WA Possible logo was designed by Seattle-based artist Eileen Jimenez.
If you enjoyed this episode, please consider subscribing, giving us a review, and sharing our podcast with your friends and family.
Tuesday Jan 03, 2023
Creating an equitable future with Black Women Best
Tuesday Jan 03, 2023
Tuesday Jan 03, 2023
In this episode, Budget and Policy Center Communications Specialist April Dickinson talks with the co-chairs of the Black Women Best working group, Kendra Bozarth and Azza Altaraifi. Together, they collaborated with over 40 Black women to develop An Economy for All: Building a Black Women Best Legislative Agenda, a congressional report inspired by the Black Women Best economic framework.
Kendra and Azza share details about the framework and talk about the powerful transformational shifts that the framework makes possible for the future of policymaking.
Theme music by Revanth Akella
Logo by Eileen Jimenez
Introduction and closing by Communications Specialist April Dickinson
Kendra Bozarth (she/her) is an editor, writer, and convener, specializing in narrative change. Focusing on frameworks that center Black women and philosophies that honor the bodymind, she supports movement efforts that are rooted in economic justice and collective liberation. Kendra founded KB Comms and BLUF Editorial Co., in 2020 and 2022, respectively. And you can follow her on Twitter at @kendrabozarth.
Azza Altiraifi (she/they) is a Black disabled strategist and organizer living in northern Virginia. In their full-time capacity, Azza works as a senior policy manager at a movement support organization working to advance economic justice. Azza, along with her colleague Kendra Bozarth, also served as co-chair of the Black Women Best working group. Jointly convened by the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls and Liberation in a Generation, the working group produced the "An Economy for All: Building a Black Women Best Legislative Agenda," report, outlining a clear policy agenda to address inequities that have disproportionately burdened Black women and girls — delivering an inclusive economy for everyone in the process. You can follow them on Twitter @Azza_Alt.
Congressional Report: An Economy for All: Building a Black Women Best Legislative Agenda
Practice, Practice, Practice by Azza and Kendra
"Hope is a discipline." - Mariame Kaba
Rehearsals for Living by Robyn Maynard
Reframing the Prevailing American Narrative for 2052 by Connie Razza and Angela Peoples
10 Principles of Disability Justice incubated by Sins Invalid
Is Prison Necessary? by Ruth Wilson Gilmore
(*corrections to transcript provided by speaker after recording.)
[00:00:00] Azza Altaraifi: Whenever I am feeling despair start to creep up – in addition to remembering Mariame Kaba's constant reminder/refrain/meditation that hope is a discipline – I also am called upon to remember the fact that if we weren't as powerful as we are, if we weren't as capable of building that liberatory future, the establishments of the state, the ascendant fascist formations, all of these groups that are fighting tooth and nail to try and disorganize our movements, to co-opt our language, they would not be working this hard if winning wasn't a real possibility.
And I think it’s inevitable. And I don't think it's inevitable because the universe makes it so. I think it's inevitable because every day, for every bad news story, I see 15 stories of organizing campaigns and formations that have really built power.
[00:01:15] April Dickinson: Welcome to WA Possible, a podcast about what is possible for economic justice in Washington state. This podcast is presented by the Washington State Budget & Policy Center, a research and policy organization working to advance progressive state budget and tax policies that promote racial equity and economic dignity.
At the Budget & Policy Center, we dream of a brighter future where everyone has a home to rest in, families can afford child and elder care, and people have enough money to buy the food and resources they need. On WA Possible, we talk with partners, advocates, and our staff who are helping make this vision a reality. We know that economic justice is possible here in Washington state because we are building toward it together.
I’m April Dickinson, communications specialist at the Budget & Policy Center, and I'm the host for this episode about Black Women Best, an economic framework initiated by Janelle Jones, the first Black woman to serve as chief economist at the Department of Labor. We wanted to highlight this framework on WA Possible because of its capacity to build a future that is free of structural inequity and that clears a path for shared prosperity and well-being. I had the chance to talk with the co-chairs of the Black Women Best working group Kendra Bozarth and Azza Altaraifi. That was Azza speaking at the top of the episode.
They collaborated with over 40 Black women to develop An Economy For All: Building a Black Women Best Legislative Agenda, a congressional report inspired by their framework. The legislative agenda reinforces that ensuring access to the resources and opportunities necessary to truly thrive in society – regardless of gender, race and other identities – is essential to building back a stronger economy. Kendra and Azza shared details about the framework and talk about the powerful transformational shifts that the framework makes possible for the future of policymaking.
Let's get to the episode.
[00:03:10] April: Thank you, Kendra and Azza, for joining me on WA Possible today. Kendra, I'm wondering if you can provide a grounding on what the Black Woman Best framework is and why it was created?
[00:03:23] Kendra Bozarth: Yeah, absolutely. You know, I love to say the definition for a Black Women Best is so simple, and I love it because it just contrasts the fact that it's such an expansive framework. Right. So really, it's arguing that when we build an economy that will work for Black women, we’re building toward an economy that will work for everyone.
Black Women Best started as an economic framework coined by Janelle Jones (the most incredible human) who noticed, well before COVID, the pandemic, and ongoing recession that we're facing, Janelle studied the fact that Black women are always the last to recover in economic downturns. And so she started thinking about how can we, through policy making, rectify this very obvious disparity.
And so she and a group of incredible women, set out to get started on this. And then, as I mentioned, when COVID happened, 2020 is when we put out the first Black Women Best policy report. I saw it as the moment to really drive hard on this because, from the start, we knew that the pandemic was exacerbating structural inequities that existed long before it started.
And I'll say a big part of defining the framework, explaining the framework is that it's radically inclusive. I think a lot of people, when they hear it first, they're like, “Oh, it's just for Black women it seems like.” No. I mean, that would be fine. That would be okay if it was just for Black women. That would be nice for us to have something just for us.
But it's for everyone. You know, my friend Anne Price always reminds me that Black women are not monolithic. I think people have one version of a Black woman in their mind. And so when we're saying Black women, we mean cisgender women and transgender women, as well as the marginalized gender identities that are also put under this umbrella. So it’s for nonbinary people, gender non-conforming people, all of those self-hoods that are oppressed by cisheteronormative patriarchy. And then remembering that we mean all Black women. So Black immigrants, undocumented people, Black women formerly incarcerated, currently incarcerated, queer people, Black women with disabilities, Black women who are multiracial and multiethnic.
I had someone say, “How do I explain this to my abuela?” And it's like, well, first I'd like to remind you that there are Black, Latino or Latinx women, right? So I think that's important to lift. And then, two more points I want to hit is that it's become so much more than an economic framework. I think it's really important to policymaking. But I also see it as a call to action because it inherently names that we've been doing – what I always jokingly say – Wealthy White Men Best since forever. And so this is a call to action to, we have a lot of things to correct for, a lot of healing to do, a lot of reparative policymaking to do. And so this is that call to action to do that.
And as Azza often reminds me, it's also an organizing praxis. Black Women Best also shows us how we should organize. And that “how” is really important because this framework is as much about *process as it is about outcomes. And so how are you putting together Black Women Best policy ideas? If it's just for Black women, but Black women aren't helping to create them, then it's just representative. It's not building something that is actually centering the people who have the experience, who live in this world as Black women. Who in their hardship know the answers, they know the solutions we need.
And I personally, as a communications person, a narrative person, I always say we do too much speaking about and for people. And so Black Women Best is that reminder that it has to be for and by Black women. So again, the *process is just as important as the outcomes. And I think that also speaks to how this is something that no one owns. Janelle doesn't own it. I don't want to own it. Azza doesn't want to own it. We're not trying to keep it to ourselves. It's for everyone.
And I think right now we're in this moment of – I'm so glad you reached out to talk about it because we're in this moment to spread the message and show people how they can show up in Black Women Best and how they can see themselves in Black Women Best.
And ultimately, for me, it's become such a loving project because it's allowed me to be in community with so many Black women. Azza and I recently put out the Black Women Best congressional report, and really just thinking and dreaming and writing and envisioning and all of that – doing that together was, for me, the biggest payoff.
Ultimately, we wrote this massive report. I got a little excited as an editor. I was like, “Oh, if we're doing it, we're doing it.” But at the end of the day, it was being in community with each other that not only strengthened the framework, but just really strengthened my drive to keep putting it out there.
[00:09:24] April: Yeah. And I think the building of the report was probably very much in line with that, what you said about process, right. I was reading that you had 40 Black women contributors participating in that process. That's a lot of people. But it's all the right people at the table building it.
And there are so many important policies that are part of that legislative agenda, like you said, like don't leave anything out. Let's just get it all in there. Let's do it. And some of them are policy areas that we're working on at the Budget & Policy center, too. And so Azza I was going to invite you to talk to us about a few of those policy areas, specifically providing a guaranteed income, progressing on tax policy, and valuing care work, and how the legislative agenda is building on those principles.
[00:10:17] Azza: I'd be happy to. So I think perhaps a good place to start, given what Kendra noted about how Black Women Best is as concerned with process as it is with outcomes, and the way that we jointly built this process with the real intention of ensuring that people who are often shut out of the room, people whose wisdom and expertise and vision tend to be dismissed either as not being feasible in the current moment, as being too ambitious, as being rooted in the wisdom of community, instead of the credentialism and elitism that tends to be valued within and beyond the nonprofit industrial complex.
And so not only was it so meaningful to create the process that way personally, but it was also our attempt to model in the actual writing and publication of this report what BWB, what this framework actually equips us collectively to do. And it's what Robyn Maynard, an incredible scholar, refers to as Rehearsals for Living, right? A rehearsal today for the liberatory futures of tomorrow.
And so offering that because I think that is really well represented in the Providing a Guaranteed Income section of the report in particular. Dr. Aisha Nyandoro, who authored that section of the report, talks about a guaranteed income policy, which at its most basic is a policy where people are receiving this set allocation of money unrestricted. It's not based on all of these bureaucratic metrics that we typically associate with parts of the social safety net, and is an extremely important and, we've seen, very effective tool at addressing poverty.
And she specifically is pulling from the example of the Magnolia Mothers Trust, which has offered $1,000 monthly payments to Black mothers in Mississippi and has been an incredibly transformative policy intervention for people who are experiencing some of the most extreme forms of economic and financial violence, state violence, and harm.
And one of the things she does in the report is she includes quotes from these women who are explaining how we need to shift our understandings of wealth, shift the ways that we assess economic well-being at a national/state/aggregate level, and also at the individual level, at the community level. And that wisdom is centered and it is named and it is uplifted in the report, not only because that is the wisdom that ultimately is what drives the creation of these guaranteed income pilot projects that we've seen crop up throughout the country, but also because it is us naming that Black Women Best is not empty representation.
It is not Black faces in high places. It is not about Black women being invited into halls of power or places that have historically been designed to exclude us and indeed have been the sites where the entire set of policy arrangements which bear down on us were first imagined and implemented. This is not a framework that calls for that by any stretch of the imagination.
What it does instead, and what Dr. Nyandoro notes, too, is it recognizes and affirms that all Black women, but especially those who are most affected, who are most marginalized, who are rendered most precarious by these institutional arrangements and oppressive structures which bear down on us, that they are the ones who should be centered, but also they're the ones who should in leadership. We should be following their lead.
And there is a very big difference between inclusion, quote unquote, and following the leadership of those who are most impacted. And you cannot center Black women unless you decenter whiteness and white men, full stop. So that means you are decentering all those who the system was deliberately designed to enrich and empower at the expense of Black and Indigenous people, at the expense of disabled people, at the expense of queer and trans people, and indeed at the expense of democracy itself. Because the way that they maintain their power and their wealth-hoarding is through systematically disenfranchizing us and destroying our democratic governance structures.
I would encourage folks to read the Guaranteed Income section in full, which outlines some of the federal policy proposals for how to scale these guaranteed income pilots we have seen at various state level and city level projects, particularly following the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act, which allocated state and local funding that was then used to launch many of these guaranteed income pilots.
[00:15:43] Azza: Another one of the sections that you mentioned is Progressing on Tax Policy. Another section of the report that very deliberately names and calls out – because each section is historically grounded and rooted – the ways that our entire tax system was designed at its core to protect and secure wealth in very concentrated ways for predominantly white men.
It has been a tool of distributing wealth. It has been a tool through which wealth has been concentrated. And what this section is naming is it can also then become a tool for redistribution of wealth. Tax policy can be a redistributive policy. And it lays out some of the specific sorts of interventions that can facilitate such a process.
I would also name that one of the things I find really important and compelling in that section in is the way that it is very particular in drawing the distinction between wealth and some of the narrow ways that we have understood it, and what sorts of wealth building or lack thereof is available to Black women, particularly multiply marginalized Black women.
I uplift this because in addition to the discussion that happens in the beginning of the report, with the Guaranteed Income section and the introduction, challenging us to re-imagine what we mean by wealth, it also points out a really important dynamic, which is the entire set of structures we are discussing and exploring in the framework and in the report were structures built for and by white men to preserve their interests and to specifically serve the interests of capital and capital accumulation.
And it did so by designating Black women, our bodies and our minds, as sites of labor extraction and exploitation. It does so by making the land a site of extraction, and it does so through this process of expropriation that over centuries means that wealth building in the ways that we typically talk about it is a fiction for Black women. And we are interested in liberation.
So we are not going to be focused on empty promises of buy a house and then all of a sudden you will have accumulated wealth as though centuries of chattel slavery will just disappear by shifting and tinkering around the edges of this big oppressive machine. Instead, we focus on what is it that wealth confers? What does it confer in terms of agency, in terms of time, in terms of safety? And what are the ways that we can imagine transformative policy that create enabling conditions for Black women to secure those things, too.
[00:18:53] Azza: And lastly, you mentioned the Valuing Care Work section of the report. I'm biased, but one of my favorite sections. I got to work on it with my dear friend and mentor and colleague Marokey Sawo. It has a really fantastic, accessible history of the paid care economy. And emphasis on paid because so much of care work is invisiblized and unpaid and unvalued. It goes through the history of why that is. Spoiler alert: because it is a feminized set of work and because it was work that was often done and expected to be done by Black women.
I also especially appreciate this section of the report because for a really long time in progressive spaces, the dichotomizing of the care worker and care provider from the care recipient has been an issue. It has pitted disabled folks, aging adults against the workers, and that is Oppression Olympics. And the only person who wins the Oppression Olympics is the oppressor. The exact same structures that oppress and marginalize care workers are the same set of ablest structures that marginalized and oppressed disabled people. That is a function of racial capitalism. That is how this entire system was designed.
Therefore, the only way to actually craft policies that will change those conditions and bring about social transformation is to build networks of radical solidarity that tether the liberatory conditions for the worker and the receiver while recognizing that disabled people aren't simply empty vessels that care is poured into. We are care workers too. We are care providers too.
And indeed, the networks of mutual care and of radical care networks are the product of disabled organizers, advocates, and folks who have always, in the face of abandonment, had to create our own systems for attending to ourselves and each other.
[00:21:11] April: Something that you were speaking to really stood out to me around this idea about how we think about wealth and how wealth has been constructed and also how it can be reimagined. And I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit more, you or Kendra, about what a different concept of wealth might be? Because I think there is an element of like, do we really want all people to be billionaires? Is that our goal with wealth? And how does that play into this rugged individualism that our country is also founded on? Is that the goal? Or is there this other goal around what you were saying about community care and more of a collective concept of wealth. I think it's something that I'm only starting to think about more now, and I'm wondering if you two have thoughts on that.
[00:22:04] Kendra: Yeah, I can go first. Super, super, super high-level thought, but I've been really, and Azza mentioned this in what they were saying before, but just really thinking about the ways to expand the definitions of wealth. I think the biggest opportunity I see is time. Not just in the time we have in every day, but also the time we have of our life. The length of the lives we get to live. The time we have to be with our children, our friends, and community with each other. So many people, Black women in particular, are doing all they can to get by. And that leaves them very little time. Not only to be with others, but even just to take care of themselves.
Everyone acting that someone who gets – what is very much public dollars, which is our money – who gets public dollars to support themselves, to overcome low wages, Oh, well, they might go on a vacation and they might take the time to get a manicure. Like, they don't even have the time to do that. So don't worry, the time is not there. So, I think there there's a lot to explore how we expand those definitions of wealth. And I think time, for me, is one of the most important.
One of the things we talk about in the report is the fatal stress of oppression. Stress alone not only is life stealing, but it's energy stealing. I know for myself I'm in a privileged position considering many of the Black women we are talking about and want to center in this work. But I often don't have the energy to make more of my time. I have income. I don't have generational wealth, that's for sure. I don't have wealth at all. And for me, I would most like wealth in my time and what I can do with my energy and how I can reclaim that.
So I just wanted to note that very high, high level thought. It's something we're digging into together. Azza mentioned Marokey Sawo, and they very much want to look into how do we measure that? What is the measurement for that? How do we measure lost time? How do we assess that within individuals’ lives, within communities? All of that. So, yeah, I think that's where I want to take it. Azza, what about you?
[00:24:39] Azza: Yeah, there's a lot in there. I almost wonder if maybe that's a good segue to talk a little bit about Disability Justice and Black Women Best. When I think about time in particular, I have been reflecting on the scholarship of folks like abolitionist geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore – who is in fact quoted in the Disability Justice section – and others who have been looking at this question of time and extraction of time and what that means. Not only because it is among the many things that have been stolen from us and has led to our premature deaths and disablement, but also because this requires a really critical analysis of how our paid labor economy is structured overall.
We have, since industrialization onward, gotten to the place where we're actually – sure, we're selling our labor, but predominantly what we're doing is selling our time. I could finish all of the shit that's expected of me within two hours and I am still expected to be online for the full eight because that is what I am selling.
And in a nonprofit industrial complex in particular, which runs on these sorts of extraction and exploitation of its workers in ways that expect far more than just a 40 hour workweek. We can think about all of the things that we cannot do because of how much time is taken up by our paid labor.
[00:26:25] Azza: The reason why this is such the grounding of where I started, it was the entry point as I was considering what to put into this Disability Justice in Black Women Best section. I started here because race and class and disability aren't simply entangled. We truly cannot even begin to understand the structure of white supremacy and the structures of racial capitalism unless we understand disability too.
Because disability is as integral to that project of white supremacy as is race. They are co-constitutive. And the easiest way that I can explain or point to that is the fact that the very definition and designation of disability, the very mechanisms through which entire populations have historically and to this day been pathologized by the state and its agents, as a tool of social control and of labor discipline.
Within workplace settings, what we see in this post-industrialization moment is as our labor structures become time-regulated and routinized in ways that they weren't before, we also see the introduction of a whole new set of categories of disability that did not previously exist. Because disability, as it is constituted within this broadly Western world, is directly entangled with the assumptions of what sorts of paid labor output a particular body or mind is capable of. Which is why a lot of the new categories of disability that emerge in that moment are related to sleep dysregulation.
So, all of a sudden it's like, oh, well, that's a disability because we can't get you in the factory at six in the morning and can’t stay there until whenever at night, because, Lord knows, labor protections then were fiction and in many ways still are. And so that becomes a tool through which labor discipline is happening.
And fundamentally, because our access to things like health care and other life sustaining resources – because we don't guarantee housing, we don't guarantee access to health care, because that is directly linked to your labor output. And even in fact, things like Supplemental Security Income and these important disability programs are also contingent on what you have paid in before from your previous wages and work.
What ultimately ends up happening is we have a structure and a system that gives you two options: you labor under disabling conditions that crush your body and your spirit in order to access health care, in order to live, or you face the very real threat of being shut out of the paid labor economy and forced to navigate a social safety net that has gaps so fucking big hundreds of thousands of people are falling through, which is basically a death sentence. And I don't say that lightly. I don't say that metaphorically. It is quite literally a death sentence. So, your choices are labor, knowing that this will exacerbate your already existing disabilities, it won't accommodate them, and in fact will likely disable you further, or die. What form of labor discipline is more effective and more violent than that?
[00:30:14] Azza: That is the entry point for how I went about writing that section. Disability Justice is a framework that is articulated by Black and Brown, queer, disabled folks, primarily disabled women. The ten principles are incubated by Sins Invalid (you can find it on their website). It is worth reading in full. it is why that formation specifically names that Disability Justice requires a commitment to an anti-capitalist politic. Because the very nature of our body-minds is one that constitutionally cannot operate and find safety and let alone liberation within the confines and the violence inherent to racial capitalism. The section goes through different policy interventions that are possible when we put these frameworks of Disability Justice and Black Women Best in conversation with each other. Because indeed, the liberation of Black women is not possible unless we are incorporating and integrating and centering Disability Justice. Because ableism affects all Black women, whether they identify as disabled or not. This is fundamentally about the way the state seeks to control us, to discipline us, and Black women have always been its primary targets.
And I would end by saying what Ruth Wilson Gilmore names herself, what I put in the report, she notes that where life is precious, life is precious. And that is fundamentally the politic, the ethos, and the set of policy arrangements we are imagining through this work. We are seeking a whole new set of systems and structures, a whole new set of community networks that value all Black disabled life. Because where Black, disabled women are precious, all other life will be precious, too.
[00:32:13] April: I love that. It's really speaking to, not just what policies are or what policies say, but that deeper understanding of valuing human beings because we are valuable. And to me, that's kind of a signal around this deeper transformation that needs to happen, beyond just running a bill through the legislature. So, Kendra, I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about what those cultural and narrative shifts are that are needed to really keep driving these- like, we do want these outcomes. But to go back to both of your points, how we get there is so important. And there is so much more around those policies when it comes to how people think and how the messages that we get in our communities and from our leaders. That is also a really key piece of this.
[00:33:16] Kendra: Yeah, absolutely. I'll just lift that in the report, we have a very specific section on this. It's about cultural considerations that need to be in line with the implementation of Black Women Best policies. And, whew! I’m still getting life from Azza because they get me every time especially when they talk about Disability Justice. And I think that speaks to one of the narratives.
Azza mentioned, Black Women Best and Disability Justice being in conversation together. And you know, I mentioned earlier that Black Women Best is a call to action. And as far as storytelling, which to me is so necessary for cultural change, that's where in being in conversation with Disability Justice, it becomes a demand because it says we are not disposable and you will ensure that our systems and institutions guarantee that.
And so for me, that's just a huge demand of Black Women Best. But then there's also the discussion about redefining wealth, right? One thing I really want to lift, our friend Angela Peoples – Hi AP! Hope you're listening. – Angela Peoples and Connie Razza recently put out a report, Reframing the Prevailing American Narrative for 2052. Basically, they are looking at how – this is just so obvious, but when they said it, I was just like whew! – Basically, they're exploring how the identity in the U.S. is inherently tied to either upholding white supremacy or resisting white supremacy. And so how can we, in the next 30 years, start to redefine our identity in a way that is untethered from that? Yeah. And I'm getting goosebumps right now because it's so true. Right? Like, even as I'm fighting white supremacy, I'm still centering white supremacy.
And so that's part of the story, I think. That also speaks to the narrative of being far sighted. I think inherently in this country, especially because our politics have been deeply corrupted by private interests and money, we, even as progressive and leftists, are working around election cycles. And it's kind of what you mentioned earlier about what win can we get? What's the outcome? Right. And Black Women Best is asking people to think beyond what's available in front of us and to push past that and receive, achieve, demand more. And so I think that's a big narrative that needs to be told.
[00:36:09] Kendra: And then, most importantly for me, it's really about reclaiming our stories as Black women. You know, I don't like to lift a lot of the tropes that exist about Black women. I think we all know them very well. President Ronald Reagan was responsible for a major one. And so I think with this project, a really important aspect of narrative change is reclaiming our stories by not spending so much energy confronting those narratives and fighting those narratives. Because doing that, you're inherently lifting them up.
But just in telling the different stories, telling the true stories. Right? We are breadwinners. We lead households. We lead entire communities. We create networks of care. And so, to anybody listening to this, think about what are those stories you can be telling? Again, because Black women are not monolithic. What are the stories that can reveal the true wholeness of Black women and the endless offerings we provide? Not only in how we uphold society, but how we drive where it can and should go. That's really important to me.
[00:37:20] Kendra: And lastly, I'll say something that we've all touched on, is what I said earlier, not speaking about and for Black women. Let Black women speak for themselves. People, especially in the last two, two and a half years have been saying, “Listen to Black women. Listen to Black women. Listen Black women.” But it doesn't go beyond handing over the actual microphone. As Azza said, it doesn't deliver on following our leadership. Because, to me, that's what listening to Black women means.
It's not just listening to our warnings. To this day, it's still not registering what we're saying, what we see, what we feel. I think what we feel is really important. Those are the stories that need to be told. Not only just the heartbreak, but the hope.
I don't want to butcher it, but Octavia Butler has a very great quote on hope and it basically gets to the point of hope is an action. And so when I'm feeling down, when I'm feeling overwhelmed, I remember that pursuing things like Black Women Best, naming the problems, being in discussion with people, that in itself was an act of hope. Because I'm hoping we can stop making the same mistakes. I'm hoping we can stop retelling these destructive stories that literally cost people their lives and their livelihoods. And I'm hoping we can do better.
Lastly, just three quick things. There's also the narratives about the fact that we are not trying to fix people. We are trying to fix systems.
Black Women Best also echoes the fact that this is what equity means. I think especially since the tragic murder of George Floyd, a lot of people are like, okay, we're finally ready to do equity, but they're not doing equity. Like, this is what equity means. I don't need a Black woman Vice President. I need every system that limits my well-being to be wholly dismantled. That's what I need.
And then finally, you know, I really, really want folks to center the idea of abundance and to incorporate those in our narratives. I think, understandably so, we do so much work on the defense and having to both fight what's coming at us and name generations of harm. But I think we also need to make sure that we're holding space to talk about what we're moving toward and what we have. We are an abundant country. We are an abundant planet. And how do we reclaim that and make clear that abundance is for everyone? It's not just for the wealthy white few.
[00:40:14] April: I love what you said about hope being an action, that quote from Octavia Butler. And for the Budget & Policy Center, that's why they wanted to create this podcast, is to kind of hope in action with people, with people who are doing the work to take ideas that have seemed too far fetched and to really go for it.
And so, our podcast is called WA Possible. We're really wanting to focus on things that are actually happening that I think we don't always know are happening because a lot of the narratives that we get are so negative. They feel so defeating. I mean, they affect our energy, like you said before, Kendra. When we get bad news, our energy can be really stolen from us, just as you said.
So our goal with WA Possible, is to have the two of you come and share with us your work and your expertise, but also what is your vision for the future? And in this context, how does the Black Women Best framework make that vision possible? And Azza, do you want to start with what's bubbling up inside you on that hope in action side of things?
[00:41:34] Azza: I mean, so many things are bubbling up inside me and that is what happens every time I have the honor of sharing space with Kendra. There are a few things that I want to uplift in this moment. The first is that whenever I am feeling despair start to creep up – in addition to remembering Mariame Kaba's constant reminder/refrain/meditation that hope is a discipline – I also am called upon to remember the fact that if we weren't as powerful as we are, if we weren't as capable of building that liberatory future, the establishments of the state, the ascendant fascist formations, all of these groups that are fighting tooth and nail to try and disorganize our movements, to co-opt our language, they would not be working this hard if winning wasn't a real possibility.
And I think it’s inevitable. And I don't think it's inevitable because the universe makes it so. I think it's inevitable because every day, for every bad news story, I see 15 stories of organizing, campaigns, and formations that have really built power. I see experiments every day in democratic governance. I see it in the labor formations and the fact that we have more support for labor unions this year than we've seen in decades. I see it in every one of the 200 plus Starbucks unions. I see it in Chris Smalls bringing people into those streets to talk about what it looks like to claim their power as workers.
I see it when the organizers of Rhode Island managed to take advantage of a giant organizing infrastructure leftover from the Bernie campaign and use that to pass the most progressive marijuana legalization law this country has seen, which didn't just do automatic expungement, but for the first time set aside 50%, I think, of the licenses in that state for worker-owned cooperatives. That is a state policy mandating worker co-ops be at least half of the dispensaries we will see cropping up in Rhode Island. That was people on the ground organizing.
I see it in all of the work that has happened to shrink the ever-expanding footprint of the prison industrial complex. Each of those tell me that our mandate is to build power within communities and to resource the efforts that are already ongoing. Because Black women have always been organizing. We have always faced the brunt of the state's abandonment and violence. So Black women, and economist Nina Banks writes about this extensively, because our consciousness did not happen in the private sphere of the home the way that it did for white women.
[00:44:50] Azza: The consciousness of Black women was as much about their community and their membership in a racially oppressed group as much as it was about the gendered violence that they face. And as an outcome of that, Black women have always been engaged in their communities to build the sorts of networks of life sustaining, life affirming care, and have always struggled to dismantle these death making institutions.
So in a post-Roe [v. Wade] moment, when everyone is scrambling to get access to life sustaining reproductive care, they are turning to the networks that Black women have built over decades. Reproductive Justice is the offering of Black women who saw this and have been working towards that vision. Disability Justice has been the offering of Black and Brown, queer and trans disabled women, and that is our offering because we see what is at stake.
And we also know that this is our moment to practice today, what we are building tomorrow. So I'm always full of hope. And I'm also always full of gratitude for Black women. Today, to our ancestors, and to the Black women who seven generations from now will continue to carry on this push for making real the dreams of abolitionists of old and abolitionists of today.
[00:46:08] Kendra: Whew!
[00:46:10] April: Yeah, don't stop!
[00:46:13] Kendra: Azza’s done it again! That's it. You know, I'll just add two things for me. My vision for the future, a future that's rooted in frameworks like Black Women Best, is for us all to know – In the policy change we see and the structures that we build and in the way we measure our ambition – that limitations are manufactured.
That is something I hope and know will be true in the future. That we don't just go for things because we think we can maybe win part of it. We go for it because it's just and it's true and it's liberatory and it's right. And any limitation in our way isn't real. That's important to me.
And then the second part, we have so much to do to fix what has been done. But, I see a future in which we're holding a vision that has moved past repair and that we get to be in a world together and imagine the next iteration of the world in which the foundation that we share, that we're all above, is strong. It's all encompassing and it's inherently liberatory. So for me, it’s about a future that's not just fixing. That is all about making, cementing, lasting.
[00:47:59] April: Thank you both so much. I could definitely talk to the two of you for the rest of the day, but I just really appreciate this. You can hear the passion in both of your voices and the commitment to this. And I just really appreciate the time that the two of you took to talk with me today.
And I know that our audience and our listeners will be inspired to dig into your work and to not just listen, or not just pass the mic, but to follow the lead of all of the contributors of the Black Women Best framework and the Black women that are in their community.
[00:48:38] April: I just want to share deep gratitude to Kendra and Azza. I'm still feeling so inspired from our conversation. During the interview we referenced a few different people and resources. You can find more information about them and a transcript of this episode in the show notes and on our website budgetandpolicy.org/podcast.
Thank you for listening to WA Possible. This podcast is sponsored by the Economic Security Project, the Washington State Council of Firefighters, Byrd Bar Place, and United Way of King County. Our theme music was created by Spokane beatmaker Revanth Akella and the WA Possible logo was designed by Seattle based artist Eileen Jimenez. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider subscribing, giving us a review, and sharing our podcast with your friends and family.
Tuesday Jan 03, 2023
How Racism Shapes the Tax Code
Tuesday Jan 03, 2023
Tuesday Jan 03, 2023
In this episode, Budget and Policy Center Communications Specialist April Dickinson speaks with our friend Mike Mitchell, Director of Policy and Research at the Groundwork Collaborative, a national organization committed to advancing a vision for strong, broadly shared prosperity, and true opportunity for all.
Mike talks about the racist history of taxes in the United States, what inspires him in his work, and the vision that he has for his kiddo’s future.
Theme music by Revanth Akella
Logo by Eileen Jimenez
Introduction by Communications Specialist April Dickinson
Mike Mitchell is the Director of Policy and Research at the Groundwork Collaborative. Previously, he was the Senior Director and Counselor, Equity and Inclusion with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where he led the organization’s efforts to incorporate a greater equity and inclusion lens into its research and analysis. Before that he served as a Senior Policy Analyst with the Center’s State Fiscal Policy team, focusing on state higher education policy and state-level tax policy. Mike holds a B.A. in economics and political science from the University of Connecticut and an MPA from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Mike loves taking walks with his wife and daughter. You can follow him on Twitter at @MikeDMitchell2.
Budget & Policy Center Brief: Washington's tax code is an untapped resource to advance racial justice
American Taxation, American Slavery by Robin Einhorn
Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 by Eric Foner
The Whiteness of Wealth by Dorothy A. Brown
Poem: Do not ask your children to strive for extraordinary lives by William Martin
[00:00:00] Mike Mitchell: I think for my kiddo, I just want to work really hard to build a future where even if she strives for just an ordinary life, all the things that she deserves just by existing – good schools, good health, a clean environment, freedom from racial oppression – all those things are just taken care of so that she can just have a chance at living an ordinary life and find the wonder and marvel just in that.
[00:00:29] April Dickinson: Welcome to WA Possible, a podcast about what is possible for economic justice in Washington State. This podcast is presented by the Washington State Budget & Policy Center, a research and policy organization working to advance progressive state budget and tax policies that promote racial equity and economic dignity.
At the Budget & Policy Center, we dream of a brighter future where everyone has a home to rest in, families can afford child and elder care, and people have enough money to buy the food and resources they need.
On WA Possible, we talk with partners, advocates and our staff who are helping make this vision a reality. We know that economic justice is possible here in Washington State because we are building toward it together.
I'm April Dickinson, communications specialist at the Budget & Policy Center, and I'm the host for this episode. To ensure that policies developed in the future are equitable and achieve their goals for justice, it's helpful to understand the historical context and persistent racism already embedded in so many government systems. That's why we invited our friend Mike Mitchell to talk about racism in the tax code, something he has been studying for many years. That was him speaking at the top of the episode. Mike is the director of Policy and Research at the Groundwork Collaborative, a national organization committed to advancing a vision for strong, broadly shared prosperity, and true opportunity for all.
We are lucky to have known Mike for over ten years and to watch him continue to grow in his work. He was a state policy fellow with us at the Budget & Policy Center back in 2012 and 13 (you can still read some of his research on our website) In 2019, he spoke on this topic at our annual policy summit Budget Matters. And now in 2022, we got to connect with Mike again for our podcast. In this episode, Mike talks about the racist history of taxes in the United States, what inspires him in his work, and the vision that he has for his kiddo’s future.
Let's get to the interview.
[00:02:32] April: All right, Mike, thank you for joining me on WA Possible. I appreciate you making some time. Today, we're talking about the racial history of our tax system in the United States and in Washington. And you've really brought a lot of historical context to some of the conversations we've had in the past. You have been talking about the racist history of the tax code for quite some time, but a lot of our listeners might be like, really? The taxes are racist? What is that all about? So, if you wouldn't mind painting us a picture of what that really means, what that looks like, and how it's shown up in your work.
[00:03:06] Mike: Yeah, sure. So, I think the first thing that's really important for grounding people when you're talking about the tax code and structural racism is to take a step back and just get people thinking about what policy is, right. And for a lot of us, when we think about public policy and we think about housing policy or education, I think it's easy to see the ways in which individual policymakers’ or communities’ values get embedded in those policies. Right? The same is true for tax policy, too. For some reason, we think of it as dollars and cents. But it's the same mechanism of values and prejudice and stereotypes that inform how we create tax policy, just like we do others. So, if you can understand that, I think it becomes a little bit easier then to understand the ways in which racism, structural racism, white supremacy have formed or have helped to form and shape tax policy both at the federal and state level.
I think that's the first thing that I would really encourage listeners to try and understand and embrace. And then it's just exploring the history of tax policy and specifically for myself, state tax policy, where you can see the myriad of ways in which lawmakers – who, for a long, long period in this country, the population of lawmakers, was really restricted to being white men – looked to use tax policy to enforce the racial caste system that we've had in this country.
And you can see that in primarily in the South, we see it originating, but then you can see the ways in which those policies actually migrate across the country. So if we're talking about supermajority requirements, which you're no stranger to in Washington state -
[00:05:08] April: Yeah, those are fun.
[00:05:09] Mike: Oh, very fun. Very fun. But these supermajority requirements were originally constructed in a lot of places in the South to be a firewall to prevent tax increases that would have would have gone to supporting this coalition of poor Black and poor white southerners in their attempts to rebuild the South after the Civil War.
But these supermajority requirements really restrict that ability for that population to do that and protect wealthy, property-owning whites in the South. You can see that in property tax limits. You can see that in some of the first modern sales taxes where you have these ideas around people who are just kind of leeching off the system, who aren't paying any taxes either through property taxes, but you can use the sales tax to get at it.
And of course, the rhetoric and the policy is largely targeted at Black folks. So, I think if you can entertain that idea that these systems, these policies are shaped by these preconceived notions and these prejudices, these stereotypes, then really we're just walking through history and understanding the ways in which prejudice and white supremacy informs tax policy.
[00:06:32] April: And you mentioned that values are part of the foundations of that, but I think sometimes it's also helpful to remember who was in power then and whose power and wealth was being protected. Right. Like, our communities are a lot more diverse now, but they're still not diverse enough. There's not enough representation in those institutions of power.
[00:06:56] Mike: You know, I will say there were these years, especially directly right after the Civil War, where there was an effort of reconstruction. And if you read Eric Foner’s book on this, there's this really interesting section, where he talks about this era where you have this alliance between Black lawmakers and poor whites. And they created a coalition where they are actually trying to rebuild the South in a way that does include people who have historically not really been thought of, outside of kind of white, property landowners. Right. So there's this rare, very brief, rare moment where states are really investing in education, where public health takes a leap forward.
There are programs to feed the poor that are popping up all over the South. And it's this really interesting question of what could have happened if that momentum had persisted? What would the South look like today? is a really interesting question. But unfortunately that era ends really quickly, in part because, to fund all of those very ambitious social programs, you have to raise taxes.
And when you raise taxes, that got a lot of these, wealthy white folks angry. And then the violence starts and you have what they call the redeemers who use terrorism, essentially white terrorism, to end this reconstruction period, retake power. And then, as I was just saying, put in place all of those restrictions and firewalls that prevent any chance of any real reconstruction taking place again.
And then you're totally right. I mean, once the redemption era is fully taking hold, you're talking about legislatures that are entirely white or predominantly white and are really illegitimate in the sense that, they're using everything they can from white supremacy terrorism to all these state constitutional amendments that disenfranchise Black folks, again. That creates the foundation for the under-resourced Southern fiscal policy structure that unfortunately has persisted largely to this day.
[00:09:46] April: So, as we talk about to this day, what does the landscape look like now?
[00:09:52] Mike: Yeah. So, I kind of alluded to it a little bit. I think one of the things that has changed is that, we think of the South – and I think it's easy for people who don't live in the South to think of the South – as this discrete space where policy may have been informed by racist intent.
And we can see the disparities there. But, other regions really haven't gone down that path. But that's actually not the case. And there's a really great book called American Taxation, American Slavery by Robin Einhorn. And she does a great job of demonstrating the ways in which actually a lot of those policy ideas that may have originated in the South or in the Midwest migrate.
And so you can see in a lot of states that weren't even around during that era, have adopted some of these things are foundational to their own tax policy structures or fiscal policy structures. And that has created a lot of the same challenges for those states in addressing some of the disparities that they see, racial disparities in particular. It's prevented them from addressing those things in the same way that prevents them from being addressed in the South. So, I would say if we're talking about something that's different, I think we can talk about the landscape for where these challenges persist.
I think maybe in a positive way, and I'm more than happy to talk about this, I think we are starting to see solutions that look to address or fundamentally overturn some of those things, that's exciting.
But I think, unfortunately, we're still dealing with broadly – specifically in Washington state – we're still dealing with pretty significant disparities along lines of race in terms of income, employment, general socioeconomic prospects that are fundamentally issues of policy. So, there's a lot of work to do.
[00:11:59] April: I think another thing that, as someone who is not in the policy field – I'm in communications – so, I don't always get super deep into some of these details. It took reading Whiteness of Wealth by Dorothy Brown to really understand the difference between taxing income and taxing wealth. And it's one of those things where I'm like, that seems like something that should be so obvious, but she painted that picture so clearly in that book.
Can you talk a little bit about that, too? Because I think when we invite people to look at some resources around this topic, there might be some conversations around the difference between income and wealth. And if we also don't take a minute to step back and think about – while maybe BIPOC populations’ income levels might be raising that their ability to accumulate wealth and provide generational wealth has been stymied from the beginning and has not really improved.
So yeah, do you feel comfortable taking a minute just to kind of illustrate that difference?
[00:13:08] Mike: Yeah, absolutely. I think a couple of things. One, you know, we can see ways in which households or communities on either side – if you’re talking income or you’re talking wealth – experience very different treatment just by virtue of where they're situated on the spectrum of either income or wealth.
So, on the income side, if you are making, you know, very little money and you go to file your taxes, maybe you get a refund, maybe your income taxes aren't so much and so come tax day, you're actually getting a little bit of money back from the state or the federal government or some combination. Now, you may not be getting as much as you might need and as much as you could if, say, the child tax credit were fully refundable.
We actually have made a policy decision that many lower income folks aren't eligible for the full refund if they're not paying enough in taxes. Right. That's a policy choice that we've made. There are other tax credits that you can't actually get the full refundability if you don't make enough.
On the other end of the spectrum, however, if you are filing your taxes and say you own a home, you could get the mortgage interest deduction. And that's actually the largest housing program that we run, or the most expensive housing program that we run.
So you can see ways in which even on the income side, there are policy decisions that end up determining whether or not just by virtue of how much you make, how much more you can you can get back or how your how our public policy will work or won't work for you. Now, on the wealth side, things are actually even more egregious.
So first, as we've alluded to, if you're if you're in this country, more likely than not if you are a white person, we know, on average, your wealth is significantly greater than that if you're a Black person. This comes from a whole host of reasons. From pure kind of labor market discrimination, white folks are able to enjoy greater incomes, all else equal. And so that just means on a year in, year out basis, you're being paid more. The ability to own a home in a more desirable neighborhood, to see your home value appreciate at a higher rate, the ability to save up for retirement, the ability to invest excess income into other mechanisms for wealth generation. Those are things that are afforded to you and you're more likely to be able to access than if you are a person of color, specifically if you're poor. And over time, then, that wealth accumulation not only builds up in one person's lifetime, but then it transitions into the next, into their descendants. And tax policy in this country has typically been policy that has been very lax in that transfer of wealth from one generation to the next.
And it's gotten more lax in my lifetime, such that you can see, from one generation to the next, wealth grow and accumulate. And then folks who had no hand in building that wealth whatsoever, and – I would argue for a lot of folks – even if you did build that wealth in your lifetime, it wasn't necessarily just purely from your actions, but you can see across generations where you have no hand in it at all.
You're just enjoying generations of privilege in a sense. And, like I said, we don't really have tax policy set up to catch that in any way, shape, or form. And the general narrative around it is actually such that a lot of those policies have become weaker over time.
So, that means we have a present day where the wealth of the top, of the wealthiest individuals in this country absolutely dwarfs the vast majority of low-income, low-wealth folks here in the United States. I think – and I would have to go back and look at this – over the course of the pandemic, I believe there was a statistic at one point that we were seeing one new person join the billionaire class every day, at certain points of the pandemic. At a time when people are worried about dying from a pandemic, the wealthy are just multiplying.
And the wealth of the absolute top has grown tremendously over the past few years. So, at a time when a lot of folks are facing dramatic insecurity, the consolidation of wealth and power at the top has been unfettered.
[00:18:44] April: I always found it kind of disturbing when I hear people who are in the economic space talking about economic growth and how good it is that people are, and I'm just like – there just seems to be such a lack of awareness of the people who are struggling day to day. Like you said, not even just health related, but just trying to meet their basic needs. I always found that disconnect so disturbing. I don't know if there's anything -
[00:19:19] Mike: I think we can talk about this more because I think it connects a lot to how the Groundwork Collaborative, where I work, thinks about the economy. You can build out a host of metrics right now that would tell you that the economy is working. And, you could look at broad GDP growth, you could look at jobs added, you could look at a whole host of things and you could say that things are pretty good for people.
But unless you're looking at specific communities, specific populations, or looking at where we started… You know, I could easily show you a picture, actually, where we have a country where the wealthy and the corporate elite are certainly much, much better off. But the vast majority of people are facing a level of insecurity, economic and social insecurity, that I think is a fundamental threat to the health of our democracy in our country.
[00:20:27] April: You mentioned your work at the Groundwork Collaborative. Can you talk about what you're seeing in your work that might be on the promising side? You know, the focus of our podcast is to really think about, okay, the deck is stacked against most of us. But there's more of us, right? And if we work together, we could make more progress. But sometimes it's hard to know where to start. Or it's hard to see where the good things are happening. So, I would love for you to share what you're seeing in your work.
[00:21:04] Mike: Yeah. So, I think this is maybe a little broader than your question, but one of the things that I'm really excited about is how we approach the economy at the Groundwork Collaborative. We have these three core beliefs and what needs to be done if we're going to see real, genuine economic justice take place.
And the first is that we center people in the economy. We often will go out and we'll say, WE are the economy. “We” being people. You know, the economy is not the stock market. It's not CEO pay. It's not how well shareholders are doing. The economy is everyday people. It's you, it's me, it's your neighbors, it's your classmates, it's your union buddies, it's your church family, whatever.
And it's our collective economic well-being, right? If we approach the economy with that lens, if we center the needs and hopes of everyday people, we will fundamentally make different policy decisions than when we prioritize businesses or the wealthy. Right. So that's the first of the pillars, right. Centering people.
The second one is we have to take on corporate power. Right? Our modern economy works the way it does because outsized corporate power dictates it that way. Workers are worse off and face more precarity in the labor market. That's lower pay, that's less safe jobs, that's less job stability because corporations hold all the cards. Consumers are worse off and we have less choice between products. When you get taken advantage of for services because there are so few choices when you're at the mercy of corporations and shareholders who prioritize making a quick buck over ensuring a safe product.
And, you know, our democracy increasingly is captured by the interests of large corporations, and that certainly makes us worse off as well. So when you look at that and you step back, only a small, wealthy elite really benefit from corporations calling the shots. So, if we're going to see economic justice, we also have to address corporate power. So that's the second.
And then third, we have to build public power. So that's unions, that's collectively owned businesses, that's a vibrant ecosystem of grassroots organizations. Public power is critical to a strong economy where prosperity is broadly shared. And I think public power, that's the pillar that I get most excited about because one, it connects people to other people, which is really important because I think in our modern economy, we are constantly pushed to think of ourselves as just kind of on our own as individuals.
But, this idea of public power is pushing back against that idea and connects you to your neighbor and to other folks. But it connects you to the economy in a way where you exist as an active participant in shaping broad economic well-being and giving you a sense of ownership in the economy that I think for a lot of people, especially Black and Brown folks, you don't often feel. And frankly, it's a feeling that I think the wealthy and corporations and economic elites don't want you to feel. So I think that public power is super important.
I think those kinds of things: centering people in the economy, reining in corporate power, building public power are super important. And those are the kinds of things, and the policies that support those things, that give me hope or keep me excited.
[00:24:42] April: I love that, and I am with you. That idea of public power really resonates with me, and even just thinking about rethinking what wealth means and who gets to have it and having that more collective approach. I just love that, so thank you for sharing that.
Since last time I saw you, you've become a parent. And I know that as a parent myself, it kind of shifts your perspectives on your daily work, and also on, I think, what we might want to be possible for our kids. What's the vision for the future that you want to see your kid grow up in? And what are the policy choices that we need to make to make that vision a reality?
[00:25:28] Mike: Yeah. So, I think about this a lot. I think a lot of parents stare at their kids and they think about the kind of future that they want for them. So, my kid is still pretty young. They're going to be 16 months in a couple of days. And so, this is a little sappy, but there's a poem, it's called Do Not Ask Your Children to Strive by William Martin. And in the poem, he tells the reader not to push your kids to strive for an extraordinary life. He says instead, help them to find the wonder and the marvel of an ordinary life. Show them the joy of tasting tomatoes, apples, and pears. Right. And I love that sentiment a lot.
[00:26:18] April: That’s beautiful.
[00:26:19] Mike: Yeah, but I think a lot of people, for themselves or for the people they love, they push them to strive for the extraordinary because we've made ordinary so hard for so many families. You know, you're worrying about affording rent, about whether or not your health insurance is actually going to ensure you. You worry about if your kids schools are actually teaching them and setting them up to succeed. You worry about being able to afford college. You worry about putting gas in your car. You worry about whether or not you're going to get enough hours at your job. And then in the back of your mind, there might even be the existential feelings around rising sea levels and perpetual forest fires. I mean, we have, as a society, we have failed in making an ordinary life possible.
And, I think about a generation of fortunate grandparents, maybe not my grandparents, but for this very narrow sliver of grandparents who did have stable union jobs, and you couldn't see the effects of climate change as noticeably then. And there was this vibrant middle class, particularly for white folks, who maybe they did have this moment where an ordinary life was actually something you could marvel at.
But today, we've really failed in making an ordinary life possible, let alone where someone can sit back and actually enjoy it. So, I think for my kiddo, I just want to work really hard to build a future where even if she strives for just an ordinary life, all the things that she deserves just by existing – good schools, good health, a clean environment, freedom from racial oppression – all those things are just taken care of so that she can just have a chance at living an ordinary life and find the wonder and marvel just in that.
So that’s kind of where I’ve landed.
[00:28:26] April: I love that so much. And I think it takes the pressure off your kid too, right? Like, being you is enough, right? Being you is beautiful and should be enough in the culture that we've created together. So, I just I love that.
[00:28:43] Mike: And we can do it. One, I want to make it clear, there are countries that have- I think sometimes when you get that kind of quote-unquote pie in the sky, people start to say, yeah, sure, if it was possible, we could do it. There are places that are much, much closer to achieving that. Where we can see quality of life as much higher, stresses lower. The burden of raising kids is lower. So, it's not “pie in the sky.” And in a country where, as we've been talking about, the wealth exists, we can do that here. So, I think that's also really important.
[00:29:20] April: Thank you for reminding us that these are actual policy choices that we could be making. It's not out of reach. It's not something that we have to create out of thin air. There are examples across the world for us to be able to achieve this vision that you have. I love that.
Before we wrap up, is there anything that you would like to say that you haven't had a chance to say? Like, maybe I didn't ask a question that got to it.
[00:29:50] Mike: Yeah, I'm trying to balance some of the heavier things that I lifted up earlier, especially around race and tax code, with the things that I do find encouragement, specifically on the policy end. And you know, this is not a weedsy thing. I have been encouraged more and more and more – and I would encourage the listener to be a part of this – I have been encouraged more and more and more that the policy solutions… just broadly understand that policy change – both needs to be bold but needs to be inclusive, and I would say expansive – is possible. I think that there has been more and more space increasingly to envision bigger, bolder policy change and not have to see policy change as something where you tinker around the edges.
And I think part of that, obviously, is because the moment demands that. But I do think just the comfort of it is really encouraging. So, like when we talk about health care, the fact that we can have a conversation about “Why don't we just give everybody health care?” is like a legitimate conversation.
Or when we talk about childcare. Someone can say, “Well, we should just make sure everyone can have childcare.” Or, “Let's cancel student debt”. Right. The bigger idea now seems to be something that we can talk about and engage. Now, getting it across the finish line is like a-whole-nother thing. But the fact that it's a part of the conversation is really encouraging to me.
And this is one of those things where I keep reminding people that, whether you think it can happen or it can't, you're right. And so, think that it can happen. You know, think that it can because that's what makes it possible and that's what makes it a part of the conversation is that if people think it's feasible and lean into it, and not give in to the cynical pushback that says, “Oh, how would we pay for it? Or, “Oh, how would that work?” Or, “Oh…” No. We can do that. Other places do it. You know, we've got brilliant people, we can figure it out. But we've got to believe it can happen.
[00:32:22] April: See, that's why you're the perfect guest for this show. You just said it's possible so many times.
[00:32:27] Mike: There we go.
[00:32:28] April: I'm feeling encouraged by you, as well, Mike. I think you're right. It is possible. And in Washington, you know, we decided that there is so much wealth here that we should pay for things like education, child care, making that more accessible, and that's what the capital gains tax is doing. There's people here with so much wealth. We can make these systems stronger and make them more inclusive.
And I just loved what you said, too, about the people power concept of getting more people involved and having folks understand that they're part of the economy, too, and they can be a part of the decision making. I'm feeling so encouraged by this conversation and I just really thank you for taking the time to talk with me, Mike.
[00:33:19] Mike: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having me on. And yeah, I'm really excited to continue to see the great work that's happening out in Washington state, and be in conversation.
[00:33:35] April: Just want to give another big thank you to Mike for joining us on WA Possible. During the interview we referenced a few books. You can find more information about those texts, other helpful resources, and a transcript of this episode in the show notes and on our website budgetandpolicy.org/podcast.
Thank you for listening to WA Possible. This podcast is sponsored by the Economic Security Project, the Washington State Council of Firefighters, AARP of Washington, and United Way of King County. Our theme music was created by Spokane beatmaker Revanth Akella and the WA Possible logo was designed by Seattle based artist Eileen Jimenez. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider subscribing, giving us a review, and sharing our podcast with your friends and family.