Tracing the roots of difference: A blog series

“We are not makers of history. We are made by history.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

In addressing questions about equity, analysts often present results that differ significantly by race or gender or sexual orientation.  But however dramatic the differences – even for life-and-death indicators like life expectancy and infant mortality – they rarely explore the contexts in which disparities occur.

The contexts, of course, are broad; and they differ, at least somewhat, for every group.  Events that occurred decades or even centuries ago (such as the horrors of slavery – experienced by both African American and Native American populations – or the forcible removal of Indigenous children from their families for assimilation to white European culture) can be crucially relevant to health, wealth, and overall wellbeing among people today. Just as the effects of traumatic experiences can pass from generation to generation, the effects of historically racist policies (unfair lending and hiring practices, restrictive real estate covenants, unequal access to GI Bill benefits, unequal access to quality education) have impaired the ability of multiple generations to acquire wealth and build a buffer against hard times.

This is the first in a series of EQUITY BLOGS that looks at the root causes – historical and contemporary – of longstanding disparities in the health and wellbeing of King County residents. The blogs will investigate the notion, supported by many public health leaders, that “health is a function of social inequality.” They will also describe biological mechanisms that have been proposed to mediate the close relationship between social inequality and health outcomes.

Over the next few months, blogs will explore the following topics:

  • Discrimination: An equal opportunity experience? Results of the national Discrimination in America survey.
  • Historical trauma: What is it? Why is it important now? The lasting effects of major, sanctioned oppressions that deny or ignore a group’s humanity.
  • Intersectionality in action. Effects of trauma can be compounded by intersecting identities. Illustrated with recent data from King County communities.
  • Economic policy maintains the hierarchy. How policy has been shaped to preserve power, with enduring impacts.
  • Housing policies and practices in King County. How past and present housing policies influence opportunities for residents of King County.
  • Unequal education. A look at differences in educational opportunity and the differential benefits of education.
  • Unequal justice under the law. How do we explain growing disparities in our justice system? What are we doing about it?
  • Where is environmental justice? Introducing a mapping tool to see where demography intersects with pollution and how that relates to health in King County.
  • The R word: Racism. What does it mean? Why are we so hesitant to use it? A look at changing norms and attitudes.
  • The high cost of “making it.” The stresses of having to be 10 times as good to succeed, often in a hostile environment, are reflected in a host of health outcomes.
  • Birth outcome disparities, part II. Biological explanations of persistent disparities in infant and maternal mortality. “We carry our histories in our bodies. How would we not?” (Nancy Krieger)
  • Disparities tool debuts on Communities Count. Introduction to an interactive tool that highlights disparities – and patterns of disparities – across a range of indicators.
  • Equity sources. An organized, evolving list of curated sources – national and regional – related to the above blog topics will be available on the Data Resources page.

In addition to helping us understand disparities in local data, blogs in the series are meant to show how tightly our history weaves itself into our lives and our children’s futures. In looking at trauma, we acknowledge the rich variability of responses within and across groups and generations, from strength and resilience to ongoing harm embedded in policy and culture. Our goal is not to exacerbate existing divisions, but to reaffirm the shared values, identified by King County residents, that guide the work of Communities Count.  Whenever possible, the blogs focus on the lives of King County residents, calling out local heroes as well as promising regional programs and practices.


Data sources about King County communities include …

  • Communities Count offers interactive charts and maps on indicators across the following topics: education, family & community support, food, health, housing & transportation, income, population, and public safety.
  • Community Health Indicators: For 168 health and determinants-of-health indicators offers interactive charts and maps showing trends and demographics; data for King County regions, cities, and some neighborhoods.
  • City Health Profiles provides demographic and health data for 26 cities / geographic areas in King County.


Listening to women

On January 21, 2017, an estimated 4.2 million people in the United States participated in the Women’s March, according to the Washington Post. Here in King County, about 134,000 marchers packed a 3.6-mile route from Judkins Park to Seattle Center. The signs they carried echoed a broad set of “Unity Principles” put forth by organizers of the Women’s March on Washington, D.C. – to end violence and support reproductive rights, LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, and allies) rights, worker’s rights, civil rights, disability rights, immigrant rights, and environmental justice.

While excluding no one, the agenda was grounded in women’s rights.  From the Unity Principles’ “Women’s Rights are Human Rights and Human Rights are Women’s Rights” to signs marching down streets across America, the message was clear: it was time to LISTEN TO WOMEN.

Unlikely as it seemed last January, women’s voices are being heard at the highest levels of the entertainment and media industries, are echoing through the halls of government, and are even altering the curricula of the nation’s leading business schools.

In some cases, there have already been real consequences.  Allegations of sexual misconduct led to the expulsion of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the firing of long-time NBC Today Show host Matt Lauer, and the resignations of Minnesota Senator Al Franken and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray.  Popular actors and athletes have been publicly shamed.

Most of the media coverage concerned actions that may have taken place decades ago, so the risks of speaking up — public embarrassment, loss of career opportunities, and trial by disbelief and innuendo — may have passed. And not much has been heard from women (or men) in low-paying jobs that they can’t afford to leave. Imbalance of power always invites abuse.

But the power structure may also be shifting.  Crosscut reported that Washington voters elected 38 women mayors in November, including 6 in King County cities (Seattle, Auburn, Kent, Black Diamond, Duvall, and Issaquah). And, according to NW News Network, a bipartisan mix of 175 women legislators, lobbyists, and legislative staffers in Olympia have signed a letter calling for improvements in the current process for handling reports of sexual harassment and abuses of power. The letter, titled “Stand With Us,” states, “We have no safe, neutral place to report our experiences.”

This is only a beginning of what will certainly be a long journey.  But there are signs that people making accusations about sexual misconduct may be accorded a new level of respect.  Last week the New York Times reported that while crime rates of all major felony groups in New York City fell to record low levels in 2017, reports of “misdemeanor sex crimes – a catchall for various types of misconduct that includes groping” were up more than 9%, and reports of rape started climbing after widespread publication of accusations against Harvey Weinstein.  Perhaps, standing together, women feel safer speaking out.

And we may soon see a real shift in corporate culture.  According to another recent New York Times article, business schools are teaching students “how to create a workplace culture in which people feel comfortable reporting [sexual harassment].” Perhaps more importantly, they’re acknowledging that behavior in the workplace is an important business issue that transcends gender.

We won’t see changes overnight, but this news hasn’t been lost on the younger generation. Budding stars and power brokers might think twice about actions that could, today or decades in the future, destroy everything they care about. Something big may come from this year of listening to women.

Watch for Communities Count’s upcoming update on domestic violence.

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.

Designing for equity

What does it mean to design for equity?  For 14 days in September, Seattle’s annual Design Festival is offering an opportunity for design professionals and members of the public to consider this question in depth.   Each day’s events are listed in the festival’s schedule-at-a-glance.

The festival opens with a 2-day block party at Occidental Park (Sept. 12-13, 10am – 6pm), featuring design installations, performances, and activities for “people of all ages, sizes, and abilities.”

On PARK(ing) Day ( Friday, Sept. 18) on-street parking spaces all over Seattle will morph into pop-up “mini-parks.” The Design Festival will announce awards in several categories on social media.

An all-day conference will offer “a deeper dive into design for equity” at Seattle’s Central Public Library on Saturday, Sept. 19th.  From 9:30am to 6pm, participants can engage with workshops, panels, films, lectures, and installations addressing issues such as “equitable urban planning, designers’ role in youth incarceration, and gender justice in design practice.”

From 6 to 8 pm on Wednesday, Sept. 23rd, the public is invited to join design professionals at the Equity Drafting Table to explore strategies that help everyone thrive. This free, interactive event is presented by the International Living Future Institute (and partners Sustainable Seattle, Feet First, Seattle Architecture Foundation, and King County) at the Bullitt Center from 6 to 8 pm.  Space is limited, so registration is recommended.

Communities Count has an abiding commitment to equity, and is proud to have assisted in King County’s participation in this year’s design festival.

Unconscious racist attitudes undermine best intentions

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof reviews research showing implicit biases of doctors, school principals, police, recruiters, and – yes – everyday citizens who “deplore discrimination” and would be appalled at the suggestion that they might harbor racist attitudes. Kristof links to an online test of unconscious attitudes, and offers hope that training, policies, and increased accountability can mitigate some of these unintentional acts of discrimination. Since its inception, Communities Count has focused on equity, and whenever possible analyzes community data by race, ethnicity, country of birth, first language, and sexual orientation. In the most recent Communities Count survey, King County residents reported significant disparities in experiences of discrimination.