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.  

Wealth Gap Widens

Federal wealth-building policies work well – for the wealthy

A new report by the Institute for Policy Studies grabbed headlines with a bold assertion:  “Without change, African-American and Latino families won’t match white wealth for centuries.”  Centuries!  Less heralded in the media but more relevant to speeding the journey to greater equity was the report’s exploration of federal and federally sanctioned policies that have protected the economic interests of predominantly white Americans and restricted access to wealth for people of color.  [For in-depth comparisons of the top 1% and the bottom 99% in King County, Washington state, and the U.S., see Communities Count’s latest home page Spotlight.]

wealth disparities blog   Communities Count   Tableau Public 2

Why wealth?

Income pays the bills, but wealth is a better indicator of economic security and opportunity.  Wealth provides an economic buffer that, according to the report, “helps families get through lean times and empowers them to climb the economic ladder.  Wealth is money in the bank, a first home, a college degree and retirement security – it’s the countless opportunities afforded by having savings and investments.”

In 2013, mean wealth for white households was 7 times greater than for Black households and 6 times greater than for Latino households.  If current trends continue, wealth disparities in 2043 will be even more extreme – an 11-fold difference between Blacks and whites and a 7-fold difference between Latinos and whites.

wealth disparities blog   Communities Count   Tableau Public


The report documents disparities in home ownership, employment, income (and differential returns on income), economic resilience, educational attainment (and returns on education), business ownership (and value of businesses owned), retirement savings (and access to employer-sponsored retirement plans), and exposure to “wealth-stripping products and services.”

Many of these disparities can be traced to past and/or ongoing discrimination.  But the heart of the report is its hard-nosed focus on policy.

Federal wealth-building investments after the Great Depression

The report details the huge investments made by the federal government to help American households recover from the Great Depression and World War II.  And it describes how these investments, by design or accident, could not be accessed equitably by people of color.  For example,

  • Real-estate “redlining” – a widespread discriminatory practice sanctioned by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) – restricted access to mortgages by racial and ethnic-group minorities, differentially excluding them from “the opportunity to invest in the largest driver of wealth in this country: a home.”  From 1934 until redlining was banned by the Fair Housing Act of 1968, households of color received just 2% of FHA loans. [See Public Health Insider for possible associations between redlining and health outcomes in King County.]
  • The Social Security Act of 1935 excluded farmworkers and domestic workers (primarily people of color) from coverage.
  • The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 excluded several tip-based professions (such as shoe shiners, domestic workers, servers, and Pullman porters – all with predominantly Black workers) from the U.S.’s first minimum-wage protections.
  • The benefits of 1944 G.I. Bill – which has provided millions of veterans with access to low-cost home mortgages, low-interest business loans, tuition assistance, unemployment compensation, and support for living expenses while in school – were not distributed fairly.  Biased local administration prevented many veterans of color from getting home loans, business loans, and placement in skilled and semiskilled jobs.

Current wealth-building policies: Is history repeating itself?

Through the federal tax code, the U.S. spends “more than a half trillion dollars annually to help households build wealth,” according to the report.  But many current wealth-building policies “continue to heavily favor households that do not need help building wealth while doing little or nothing for low-wealth households of color.”

Annual taxation-related expenditures to build wealth include programs to support home ownership, increase accessible savings through investments and inheritances, give preferential treatment to retirement plans, and support higher education.  Using educational support as an example, the authors point out that 90% of higher education tax spending is in the form of after-purchase subsidies that can only be used by those who have the resources to front the costs of tuition, books, and other qualified expenses – something that may not be possible for many working families.

Suggestions for the future

After demonstrating the power of past federal policies, the report’s authors propose specific actions to align wealth-building policies with the needs of those who are not already wealthy:

  • Audit federal policies “to understand the role current federal policies play in perpetuating or closing the racial wealth divide.”
  • “Replace the mortgage interest and real estate tax deductions with tax benefits that encourage and support home ownership among low-wealth families and communities of color.”
  • Expand eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to low-wealth workers and those without dependents; allow families to save a portion of their EITC as emergency savings.
  • Provide a simple, safe, and affordable retirement savings product to low-wealth families and households of color.
  • At birth, provide every child with a Children’s Savings Account (CSA).
  • Expand existing progressive taxes.
  • Explore a dedicated wealth tax.

The report was jointly produced by the Institute for Policy Studies, the Corporation for Enterprise Development (cfed), and the Racial Wealth Divide Initiative, a cfed program.

See recent Communities Count updates of national median wealth trends, mean wealth trends, race/ethnicity wealth trends, and mean and median race/ethnicity wealth trends by age.  COMING SOON:  Communities Count blog about the impact of state and local tax policies on inequality.

Award-winning research links health risk to poor grades

1 in 5 King County teens is at risk of failing in school, and new research from Public Health – Seattle & King County revealed that the risk of academic failure was linked to students’ health. The data come from the 2012 and 2014 Washington State Healthy Youth Surveys in which 8th, 10th, and 12th graders answered almost 100 questions about themselves, their families and friends, and their experiences in school and the communities where they live.

Health and academic risk


Researchers looked at the relationship between academic risk (students who reported getting mostly Cs, Ds, or Fs in school) and more than 20 indicators of physical and mental health, such as food insecurity, unhealthy weight, and depressive feelings. The findings were clear: health risk and academic risk increased in tandem. While fewer than 15% of students with zero health risks were at academic risk, more than half of students with 11 or more health risks were at risk of failing.

Further analysis identified 9 categories of health risk linked to poor grades. Even after controlling for demographic factors such as geography, race, and parental education, researchers found independent links between these categories and academic risk.

Health and Academic Risk chart 2 (2)

For example, after controlling for demographics and other health risk factors, a student reporting a poor diet (low fruit/vegetable consumption or not eating breakfast) was 40% more likely to be at academic risk compared to a student who did not report a poor diet. Feeling depressed was one of the strongest predictors of academic risk: students who reported depressive feelings were almost twice as likely to be at risk of failing in school.

What does it all mean?

The Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists highlighted the importance of this research with an award at their annual meeting. The researchers clearly demonstrated that health is an essential component of student achievement. In the future, supporting student health should be a key tool to helping all students achieve their potential. While quality teachers, administrators, and curricula will always be important, their successes might increase considerably if students had easy access to healthy food, physical activity, dental care, and could count on mental health support.

“Every young person in King County deserves to grow up healthy and live to their full potential,” said Kyle Yasuda, MD, FAAP, Medical Officer for Children and Families at Public Health. “To achieve this, it’s clear that we need to support the whole student, including their health needs.”

Click here to read the full report.  For more information about the Washington State Healthy Youth Survey visit www.AskHYS.net.

Light rail transforms Tukwila commute

Five years after light rail came to King County, use of public transit by Tukwila commuters more than doubled (from 7% to 16%); at the same time, the share of Tukwila residents who drove to work alone dropped from 73% to 65%.  Commute modes did not change in South King County cities that do not have light rail service.  In Kent and Auburn, for example, 3 out of 4 commuters were still driving to work, and only 6% used public transit.

The recent extension of Link Light Rail to Capitol Hill and the University of Washington further increased Tukwila commuters’ use of light rail.  When the new stations opened in March, MYNorthwest.com reported that Tukwila’s regular and overflow parking lots filled as early as 6:30 am, highlighting needs for nearby affordable housing plus better pedestrian, bike, and local-transit access.

What are the prospects for light rail in other South King County communities?  A new station at Angle Lake, 1.6 miles south of SeaTac Airport, will open this fall, and an extension to Kent/Des Moines (near Highline College) has already been funded.  Funding to complete extensions to the Star Lake park-and-ride (at South 272nd Street), and the Federal Way Transit Center are proposed as part of Sound Transit’s latest (ST3) plan.

Communities Count’s new update of commuting by mode of transportation includes interactive data visualizations on cities throughout King County.  King County/Metro’s online Commute Calculator enables users to compare the costs of driving alone versus using public transit.  

2016 City Health Profiles reveal little-known facts

The newly updated City Health Profiles are filled with fascinating details about King County communities.  For example, did you know that …

  • … residents of Northeast Seattle live an average of 9.9 years longer than those in South Auburn (86.2 versus 76.3 years, respectively)?
  •  … Seattle’s Queen Anne/Magnolia area ranks #1 for excessive drinking in King County (37% of adults, compared to 10% in the west section of Kent)?
  • … King County islands are magnets for seniors:  On Mercer and Vashon Islands, 1 in 5 residents is 65 or older, compared to only 1 in 14 in Sammamish?
  • … 88% of Mercer Island/Point Cities adults saw a dentist in the past year, compared to only 44% of adults in SeaTac/Tukwila?

In this year’s companion Appendix, you can find neighborhood-specific data from King County’s 7 largest cities (Auburn, Bellevue, Federal Way, Kent, Kirkland, Renton, and Seattle).

Coming soon:  An interactive version of the 2016 City Health Profiles and Appendix will be posted online.  New features for the appendix include maps and automatic rank-ordering of demographic and health information across 48 geographic regions in King County.