Race in America from the Obama White House

As America’s First Family departs from the White House, we are reminded of comments by President Barak Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama on the topic of race – something they didn’t often discuss.

On America’s history of slavery: “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves—and I watch my daughters—two beautiful, intelligent, black young women—playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.” Michelle Obama at the Democratic National Convention, July 25, 2016. Talking about slavery is painful, but acknowledging that part of our nation’s history is essential to understanding its enduring impacts.

Racial income disparities in King County continue to increase.

On income inequality: “Last year, incomes rose for all races, all age groups, for men and for women.” Barak Obama’s farewell address, Chicago, January 10, 2017. Yes, but…. In King County, 2014 income for Blacks was still below its 2008 high (of $38,847). More significantly, the difference between income for Blacks and those in the highest income group (whites and Asians vied for first place) grew from $20,970 in 1999 to $53,258 in 2015.

On the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black youth: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” Barak Obama, White House Rose Garden, March 23, 2012.

On compassion: Quoting from To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it…. For blacks and other minorities, it means tying our own struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face – the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender American, and also the middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but who’s seen his world upended by economic, cultural, and technological change. For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ‘60s; that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; that when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment our Founders promised.” Barak Obama’s farewell address, Chicago, January 10, 2017.

For perspectives on economic inequality, see Communities Count data on racial wealth and income disparities, blogs on growing wealth disparities and the unfairness of Washington state and local taxes, and the Home Page Spotlight on the rising fortunes of the top 1%. To learn about the lasting effects of housing discrimination on King County communities, see Communities Count and Public Health blogs.

Nonprofits hailed as new leaders

When we seek deep knowledge about low-income communities in our region, where do we turn? If King County is anything like Boston, new research by sociologist Jeremy Levine suggests that nonprofit community-based organizations may have “superseded elected officials as legitimate representatives of poor urban neighborhoods.”

Poster for meeting called by King County community-based organization

Poster for meeting called by King County community-based organization

Levine proposes that as public funding has declined, policy makers and public- and private-sector funders rely on community-based organizations – not only as providers of services (food assistance, affordable housing, job training, etc.) – but increasingly as “invested and deeply knowledgeable representatives of the neighborhoods.”

In part this trust comes from the consistency of organizations that are not subject to political turnover. In its discussion of Levine’s findings, The Atlantic’s CITY LAB noted that low-income neighborhoods benefit from this consistency as “empowered community organizations present a stronger front against displacement, environmental racism, and transit inequity.” At the same time, Levine acknowledges the flip side – organizations that do not adequately represent all the communities they serve cannot be voted out.

Local nonprofit leader Vu Le may welcome Levine’s findings. Executive Director of Rainier Valley Corps, a nonprofit that works to bring more leaders of color into the nonprofit sector, Le blogged last year about why the leaders of nonprofits serving marginalized communities should be respected as leaders and as experts about their communities: “We, above any other field, must act on the belief that people most affected by inequities must be leaders in the movement. It is the right thing to do. Imagine a group of men leading an effort and making important decisions on women’s issues like reproductive health, and then asking women to come give feedback at a meeting.”

More recently, Le wrote about his frustration with funders’ and policy makers’ lack of trust “that people and communities who have endured decades or millennia of injustice actually understand their own problems and know how to fix them.”

Levine has observed nonprofits taking on leadership roles in cities across the country, including New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. As requests for proposals (RFPs) for King County initiatives go out to community-based organizations in the coming months, we may see if funders trust (in Vu Le’s words) “that communities have the solutions, that they are the solutions.”

Home-grown workers need better education, more tech skills.

In a recent speech at the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, Brookings Institution vice president and Metropolitan Policy Program director Amy Liu stressed the importance of improving education and skills training for our regional workforce.  She noted that only 33% of 25-34 year-old workers born in Washington have a bachelor’s degree or higher – a level of education increasingly needed to secure living-wage jobs in a modern economy.  To make up for this deficit, regional employers rely on transplants – from other states and countries.

educated-workforce

 

A peek at the Employment Security Department’s  top 25 occupations advertised online for King County in September reveals a high concentration of living-wage jobs that require at least a bachelor’s degree, often coupled with additional training, experience, licensing, or credentials. For example, the top 7 occupations accounted for 21,117 job postings.  Of those:

  • Only 1 (registered nurse, with 2,451 job postings and an average annual salary of $85,897) does not require a bachelor’s degree.
  • The other 6 occupations (software developers, “other computer occupations,” marketing managers, web developers, network and computer systems administrators, and computer systems analysts) all require at least a bachelor’s degree, and pay an average salary of $109,612.

Even if the skills needed to do a job haven’t changed, the qualifications needed to get the job probably have.  How the Recession ‘Upskilled’ Your Job, a posting on The Atlantic’s CITYLAB, uses data from the National Bureau of Economic Research to show how employers use recessions to restructure their work forces. In 2015, online job ads were 12% more likely to require more education, more experience, or more specific cognitive skills – for the same job – compared to pre-recession postings.

In King County, however, tech skills are highly valued, and this is reflected in the specific skills included in job postings.  Only 4 of the 25 top skills listed in the past 3 months of online ads were non-technical (quality assurance, customer relationship management, pediatrics, and bilingual).

25-top-skills

Today’s workers need to “upskill” – both for jobs that haven’t really changed much and for those that depend on regular upgrading of skills and education.  Amy Liu called on government, educators, and employers to help bridge the skills gap:   “The region can build on its promising efforts by focusing on helping local students and working-age adults gain the education and skills needed to attain good jobs generated by its robust economy.”

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Washington’s Employment Security Department provides extensive information about different occupations, including wage estimates, job listings, employment requirements, training opportunities, and whether demand is rising, falling, or staying the same.   The WorkForce  website offers an assortment of tools and resources for job-seekers and employers.  King County’s Office of Economic and Financial Analysis has recently updated data on employment trends in King County and on associations between educational attainment and wages and employment.

New survey will assess needs & strengths of local families

Do children in our region get recommended medical checkups? Can families get the child care they need?  How many children are ready to succeed in school? Until now, we didn’t have a good source for this information. Starting this month, King County will begin to fill the information gap with a first-ever community-wide survey to help us understand the strengths and needs of local families. The Best Starts for Kids (BSK) health survey is sponsored by the voter-approved BSK Initiative (www.kingcounty.gov/beststarts), and was developed in consultation with local experts and trusted community-based organizations.  About 12,000 randomly selected King County parents or caregivers with children in 5th grade or younger will be asked to participate.  Results will be shared with the public in 2017.

New survey to assess needs and strengths of families.

New survey to assess needs and strengths of families.

How will the survey answers be used?

  • Survey results will inform the activities under the voter-approved Best Starts for Kids initiative.  For our region to continue to prosper, everyone should get a fair opportunity to succeed, regardless of race, ethnicity, ability, or where they live in the County. The survey will help focus attention on the needs of local families. BSK will fund programs related to:
    • Investing early to optimize children’s health and well-being before age 5.  Possible examples: providing parenting support; expanding preventive screening.
    • Continuing the investment to sustain the gain from ages 5 through 24.  Possible examples: mentoring; stopping the “school-to-prison” pipeline.
    • Preventing youth and family homelessness and promoting safe and healthy communities.
    • Investing in communities that have been left behind with the changing economics of our region.
  • Survey results will provide vital baseline information about King County children.  Follow-up surveys in 2018 and 2020 will track the effectiveness of BSK activities.

What are the benefits of participating?

  • Broad participation will ensure that the diversity of King County’s population is represented.
  • Participation will shape the futures of King County children, families, and communities.
  • Survey participants can compare their experiences with the rest of King County families.
  • Participants will be entered in a lottery; 1 in every 100 entries will win $150.

How will people participate?

  • Starting this September, randomly selected parents/guardians will be contacted about the survey.  They can complete it online, on paper, or over the phone.
  • The survey will be available in 6 languages: English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian, Chinese, and Somali.
  • Participants will answer questions about their child’s health, activities, and experiences; their family’s strengths and supports; and aspects of community and neighborhood life.

If you’re selected, make sure your voice is heard – please participate in the survey.

Find out more at  www.kingcounty.gov/bskhealthsurvey.      

Washington’s unfair taxes: Can they be fixed?

Washington has the most unfair state and local tax system in the country.”  That’s how the Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy (ITEP) describes our state in their 2015 Who Pays? report.   With its heavy reliance on sales tax, Washington is a textbook example of a regressive tax state in which families with the lowest incomes pay the highest proportion of their incomes in state and local taxes.

Washington State Tax Disparities_2015

Source:  Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy, Who Pays: A Distributional Analysis of the Tax Systems in All Fifty States (2015), based on 2012 income levels.

Low-income earners in neighboring states do not bear such a heavy tax burden.  The share of income paid in state and local taxes by Washington’s lowest income quintile is more than double the rates in Idaho and Oregon.  Conversely the share of income paid for state and local taxes by the richest 1% of Idaho and Oregon residents is 2.5 times greater than that paid by Washington’s top 1%.

wealth disparities blog 2

Income taxes are usually progressive, meaning that high-income earners are taxed at a higher rate than low-income earners.  The federal government imposes a progressive income tax, and so do most states.  As one of only 9 states without an income tax, Washington relies heavily on flat-rate sales and excise taxes to pay for government services.

These taxes take a bigger chunk out of lower-income budgets because everyone, regardless of income, pays the same rate.  Low-income and high-income buyers of a $30,000 car in Seattle, for example, will pay the same $2,970 in taxes (9.6% sales tax + 0.3% excise tax).  Similarly, flat-rate excise taxes are built into everyone’s bills for gas, utilities, telephone, internet, tobacco and alcohol products.

Washington’s sales and excise taxes are 61 percent above the national average.  According to the ITEP, “The poorest 20 percent of Washington taxpayers (earning an average income of $11,900 in 2012) actually face the highest overall state and local tax bill in the entire country, at 16.8 percent of income.”

How can Washington spread its tax burden more fairly?

The ITEP report and a companion document describe several effective state tax strategies to reduce the share of taxes paid by low- and moderate-income families:

  • Fund Washington’s Earned Income Tax Credit.  Federal Earned Income Tax Credits (EITCs) benefit low- to moderate-income working people, particularly those with children, by reducing the amount of tax owed or refunding taxes paid.  In addition to federal EITCs, more than half of the states offer EITCs to reduce the burden of regressive state and local taxes on working families.  In 2008, Washington was the first state without an income tax to pass legislation for a state EITC. However, an estimated 500,000 working families in the state have yet to benefit from the credit, as it has not been funded by the legislature.
  • Expand property tax “circuit breaker” credit to all ages.  Current program only protects elderly or disabled taxpayers from property-tax overload.
  • Create refundable low-income credits.  A policy that complements state EITCs, these credits would include older adults and adults without children – groups typically excluded from EITCs.
  • Create child-related tax credits similar to the federal income tax credit that helps offset child care expenses.
  • Establish a state income tax.

The report was produced by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP).  For more on income and wealth inequality, see Communities Count’s latest Data Spotlight plus updates of national median wealth trendsmean wealth trendsrace/ethnicity wealth trends, and mean and median race/ethnicity wealth trends by age.