Washington state is about as blue as you can get.
Last November, Washington voters approved same sex marriage and recreational marijuana use, and Washington residents have voted for the Democratic nominee in every presidential election since 1988.
It’s easy to see why a recent Gallup Poll listed Washington as one of the top 10 liberal states in the nation.
A look at Washington’s economic policies, however, suggests that the Washingtonians are not as liberal as one might think. A recent study by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy named Washington’s state tax system the most regressive in the nation. In other words, Washington’s poorest residents pay up to six times as much of their income in taxes as the state’s wealthiest residents.
Why the disparity? For starters, the ITEP study shows that Washington is one of only four states in the nation without a personal income tax. Instead, Washington relies heavily on revenue from sales taxes, which inevitably take a much larger portion of earnings from low-income families and individuals than from high-income earners, who spend only a fraction of their earnings on taxable goods.
The more progressive alternative to sales tax is a tiered income tax system, and Washington voters have already made it clear that they do not approve of income taxes. In November 2010, this proposal took the form of Initiative 1098, and was rejected by voters 65 percent to 35 percent, according to a Bloomberg News article.
“What a lot of states have done to kind of redistribute income and to help lower and middle income households in the state is to give them a state EITC, or earned income tax credit,” said Katy Fitzpatrick of Albers School of Business and Economics.
An EITC is a credit awarded to lower-income families and individuals, usually those with qualifying children.
“Washington state has tried to do that, they haven’t funded it yet, and that would be one way to go to make the system more progressive,” Fitzpatrick said.
While the legislative solution to Washington’s unequal taxation remains unclear, the system continues to burden the poor. The question remains: how do residents considered so liberal in other aspects ignore such a regressive tax system?
Seattle University Jesuit and Matteo Ricci College instructor Brendan Busse offers one possible explanation: “If it’s not just a liberally minded, but a libertarian ethos in the culture…then in terms of taxes, we have no obligation to one another in this state unless we’re buying or selling something.”
According to Busse, this libertarian perspective—the age-old American concept of the “self-made person”—could be influencing the minds of many Washington residents who refuse to see the fairness of a state income tax.
“There’s not a sense of responsibility whereby we acknowledge that nobody does anything on their own. Nobody in this life can do anything by themselves. And progressive taxation acknowledges that,” said Busse.
If radical progress won’t be made to Washington’s tax system any time soon, then it becomes the responsibility of the residents to take care of Washington’s poorest individuals. College students and young adults are feeling the impact of the increasing cost of living. Many are forced to work multiple jobs while going to school, or move back home after college. Making a living is difficult even for young college graduates, and even more so for families living paycheck to paycheck on minimum wage jobs.
“As a tax, it seems to be a regressive tax on their [low-income families’] poverty. And they end up, you know, bringing on a new family, a next generation, of poverty. So poverty tends to create more poverty in the next generation,” said Poverty in America instructor Dr. Edward Reed.
Reed encourages students to do their part to help break this cycle of generational poverty by participating in activities such as service learning and the Youth Initiative.
“Take some classes, educate yourself about these issues, join some really good groups that are making a difference out there in the community,” Reed said. “Go down to Olympia and get involved.”
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