Pramila Jayapal: Amid Homelessness Crisis, It's Time for Real Shared Responsibility

The Seattle congresswoman says a head tax would get the city closer to an equitable solution.

By Pramila Jayapal May 11, 2018

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I’m proud to represent most of the city of Seattle in Congress, and I pay close attention to what is happening in our city. Our office gets thousands of calls from constituents struggling with homelessness, mental illness, and poverty. We receive thousands of calls from working people who see their futures disappearing, who have lost hope that they will ever be able to afford to buy a home or even get a higher education. I have traveled the Seventh District talking to constituents and seeing the deep struggles with inequity that our beloved city faces. 

This year, my staff and I joined the One Night Count and witnessed the extreme inequality on display. Not far from glittering new buildings, we saw makeshift shelters and tents under the freeway and people sleeping in cars. Every day, as I walk and drive around the city, I see neighborhoods dealing with homelessness in unprecedented ways. Anxieties are on the rise as people confront a changing city, right in their front yards. 

The recent McKinsey study—done with the Chamber of Commerce—makes it clear that rapid economic growth has “unintended consequences.” It also makes clear that we simply are not spending enough on affordable housing and it’s not just a matter of spending money more efficiently.

Homelessness is growing too quickly, rising with rents and propelled by the swelling ranks of high-income digital workers. The study proposes that King County must spend between $360 and $410 million to build more affordable housing, ensure that people do not become homeless in the first place, and provide shelter for those currently on the streets.  

We’ve all seen this firsthand. Rents have skyrocketed, sometimes doubling or tripling overnight, kicking people out of their apartments and homes and sometimes into the streets. 

I have been a strong advocate for addressing the deep inequality that exists within our economy, and for ensuring that everyone pays their fair share. As an activist and a state senator, I worked on long-term solutions, including increasing the minimum wage and pushing to fix our state’s incredibly regressive tax system. I have been outspoken as a House member against the GOP tax cuts that have made our already unequal system even more unequal. Those tax cuts, combined with cruel cuts to critical programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Children’s Health Insurance Program, increasing work requirements on Medicaid, and cuts to health care will only serve to force more people into poverty and widen the inequality gap.

Some at the top who benefit from this unequal system want to pay their fair share and fix these inequities. Patriotic Millionaires, a national group of millionaires and billionaires, was vocal against the GOP tax cuts—investment banker Morris Pearl spoke alongside me at a rally at the Capitol. Here at home, Starbucks executive chairman and former CEO Howard Schultz said last year that corporate America did not need tax cuts. A few months ago, he said the tax cuts are “robbing from the future of young people in America.”

Unfortunately few other corporate leaders joined him. In fact most corporations spent billions on lobbying for the successful passage of the tax cuts. The result was that Starbucks, according to Schultz, received about $500 million from the tax cuts. Amazon received $789 million—while paying net zero in federal taxes in 2017.

Too many corporations have also fought tooth and nail against long-term solutions, setting up an us-versus-them conversation while at the same time asserting that the government must do more to invest in transportation and education. In Washington state, too many corporate leaders have fought our efforts to fix the regressive state tax system—with several of the largest putting in hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight Initiative 1098 (a project of Bill Gates Sr.) that would have imposed an income tax on a tiny fraction of the wealthiest individuals. 

The bottom line for a company cannot only be how much it provides to shareholders or top executives, or even how many jobs are created—particularly if those jobs are part-time or low-wage jobs that require the government to subsidize the survival of those employees. Recent data from the state shows that Amazon now ranks 11th in having the most employees on Medicaid—a dramatic increase from number 71 in 2016.

Just imagine that today in America, 67 percent of people do not even have $1,000 in their savings accounts to deal with emergencies. We are becoming a country of people focused on surviving, rather than thriving. We cannot allow that to continue.

This lays the context for why corporations—many of the largest who are headquartered right here in the Seattle area and benefiting from the success of a booming and rigged economy—must do more to help us with long-term solutions for critical issues. First among those solutions must be to share some of the profits they receive from an unequal system to those who are at the bottom.

And as important as it is for corporations to support nonprofit organizations that run our homeless shelters, the McKinsey study also makes it clear that support from corporations must be long term and systemic. Those solutions are best delivered when everyone pays their fair share, through accountable government and a tax system that is equitable.

That’s why, while the head tax may be an imperfect solution, there are few other options. On top of having one of the highest sales tax rates in the country, we are already seeing massive increases in property taxes through numerous levies because of the state’s regressive tax system.

We might not need the head tax if our corporate leaders would put money and effort into a real campaign that helps us fix this broken system for the long term. They could be part of the solution, as Bill Gates Sr. tried to be, so that we can stop nickel-and-diming regular working people with property and sales tax increases. That would also allow us to end this us-versus-them conversation where everyone is demonized by different groups, even though we’re all in this together.  

In the absence of that, we are where we are. We have a humanitarian crisis and Seattle—with its tremendous economic growth—is in a position to solve this together. The overwhelming majority of people who are experiencing homelessness do not want to be homeless. They are fighting demons of mental illness, high rents that are far beyond their means, and a system where their voices and the voices of low-income workers are outweighed by big money in politics.

The good news is that I have deep faith in us. We got ourselves into this situation because of choices that were made. We can get ourselves out. That’s what our local elected officials are trying to do, and I applaud their efforts to be bold, compassionate, and focused on equity as they hammer out the details of this proposed head tax.

For my part, I will continue doing everything I can at the federal level to fight for fair solutions, including more funding for affordable housing and rental assistance. I will continue to resist efforts to rig our tax system for the wealthiest. And I will continue to try to call in as many people as I can to help us find real solutions to the scourges of poverty and inequity—to work together for the kind of country that makes us all proud.

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