While we continue to face many challenges in overcoming poverty and systems of oppression in Washington state, we can also celebrate several major legislative wins over the last year that are already having a big impact – particularly for folks living on low incomes, people exposed to persistent trauma, and communities of color that continue to be subjected to the forces of systemic racism.
Solid Ground’s advocacy partner, Statewide Poverty Action Network, made significant progress across six policy areas during the 2021 legislative session, which wrapped up this spring. Some of these victories were years or decades in the making. All were supported by an incredible team of individuals with the passion, drive, and vision to catalyze systemic change in our communities.
1) Supporting a stronger safety net
Several major wins this session will help improve the lives of people living on low incomes by expanding and updating existing programs, including:
- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF): Starting next month, families will see a 15% increase in monthly TANF grants, the biggest ever cash benefit increase to support families living on very low incomes! This will increase the monthly cash grant for a family of three by $85 per month, from $569 to $654. Lawmakers also extended, until July 2022, a COVID-19 TANF time limit extension.
- Disaster Cash Assistance Program (DCAP): Lawmakers eased restrictions so that people who can’t get help through other programs are able to apply for DCAP more than once a year. The program was expanded in April 2020 after Governor Jay Inslee declared a statewide emergency in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, but unfortunately it had expended its allotted funding as of early June 2021 and is at least temporarily closed.
- Housing & Essential Needs (HEN): Lawmakers increased funding by $27 million to help meet demand for the HEN program, which ensures that people with extremely low incomes and significant disabilities can access housing.
- Nutrition: Lawmakers implemented a five-month food assistance program for people whose income is too high to qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.
- Benefit determination: Lawmakers passed legislation directing the Department of Social & Health Services (DSHS) to update the cost-of-living calculation used to determine benefit eligibility and amounts
2) Expanding access to dental care through dental therapy
Many people living on low incomes struggle to access dental care – an essential component of overall health – in part because many dentists do not accept Apple Health (what Medicaid is called in Washington state) because of low reimbursement rates. We advocate for the expansion of dental health access through the authorization of dental therapists, a class of dental professionals who work under the supervision of a licensed dentist and can provide lower-cost preventative oral health care.
Thanks in part to our advocacy, lawmakers this session added $76.05 million to Medicaid Adult Dental Care to increase reimbursement rates and allocated $50,000 for a Dental Therapy Taskforce to identify strategies for authorizing dental therapy statewide.
3) Removing barriers to higher education
This session we made significant progress in dismantling barriers that keep many people with low incomes and people of color from earning a college degree and securing the economic stability that comes with it. Lawmakers passed legislation that will:
- Build more flexibility into Washington College Grants
- Require anti-racism training at higher education institutions
- Improve college access for students who are incarcerated or who have experienced homelessness or foster care
4) Balancing the Washington state tax code
Progressive advocates have worked for years to address Washington state’s upside-down tax code. As a share of income, families making the least pay six times as much, in state and local taxes, as people who make the most. This year, we successfully advocated to expand the Working Families Tax Credit (WFTC) – a state version of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) – to make it more equitable, and fully fund it for the first time. Beginning in 2023, people with low incomes in Washington – including immigrant workers! – will be able to receive between $300 and $1,200 in direct cash assistance each year.
In passing and funding this legislation, Washington becomes the first state in the country without an income tax to create a state EITC and just the fifth to include immigrant workers in its EITC. We also supported a successful effort to create an excise tax on capital gains over $250,000, which asks the wealthy to pay their fair share in support of education funding and other critical priorities.
5) Reimagining public safety
Along with our many partners, we were successful in pushing lawmakers to improve police accountability by creating an Office of Independent Investigations to investigate excessive use of force by police. Lawmakers also passed legislation that ends the practice of no-knock warrants, prohibits police officers from using chokeholds and neck restraints, and limits the use of military equipment.
6) Strengthening consumer protections
We worked with lawmakers to lessen the negative impacts of debt. Legislation passed this session will:
- Limit the practice of suspending drivers’ licenses as punishment for being unable to pay debt
- Automatically protect up to $1,000 in bank accounts from garnishment
- Help prevent home foreclosures by eliminating harsh penalties and lowering interest rates on delinquent property taxes
- A bill that would have prevented the use of credit scores in insurance pricing did not pass, but the Office of the Insurance Commissioner has placed a three-year ban on the practice
Planting seeds for social change
Solid Ground and Poverty Action are honored to work with such an awe-inspiring team of advocates, community members, volunteers, and partner organizations whose persistent efforts came to fruition this session. While some of the bills we supported in 2021 didn’t make it through the “obstacle course” of the state legislature, advocates have planted seeds for social justice and systemic change in sessions to come.