Even as the Delta variant and breakthrough COVID infections have us masking up again, all signs point to a state that’s opening back up. Small businesses are hiring. People are out. Vaccination rates are up. As a psychiatry resident in Seattle, I’m seeing more patients in-person.
People with low-risk jobs and resources generally feel optimistic. Others who’ve seen their work obliterated, had to choose between family and career, or are on the brink of homelessness are still in survival mode; they feel no sense of relief or resolution.
Everyone’s been affected, however, some much more so than others. The pandemic has made clear to me how vast economic inequity frames the ability of people to ride out stressful times. I’m convinced—now more than ever—that we need significant economic reforms to help us create an equitable society.
Even though spikes in deaths and hospitalizations have decreased in some places, it’s clear to me that the real recovery is only beginning. Over 6,000 Washingtonians lost their lives. Nearly half a million have been infected with COVID. Many lost income due to the pandemic. Eviction moratoria prevented dramatic surges in homelessness—at least for now. Federal financial relief such as extended unemployment, stimulus checks, and the new Child Tax Credit have helped lower poverty rates. But it’s unclear if these are temporary band-aids or the beginning of lasting reforms.
On a state level, there is much room for improvement. Our tax code represents the single, most effective tool the state Legislature has to immediately improve the economic conditions of people in our state, and yet it remains shamefully upside-down because the wealthy few have rigged it in their favor, leaving the vast majority of Washingtonians to suffer.
COVID-19 widened the already existing inequities in nearly every aspect of our society, and our regressive tax code isn’t structured to repair this problem.
That our lowest-income neighbors pay six times their income towards state and local taxes than the wealthy few isn’t just a matter of fairness. This inequity doesn’t end at the bank account: it produces poorer physical and mental health outcomes.
In my role as a psychiatrist, I try to ameliorate the blows of inequity, poverty, displacement and the low self-esteem that follows. But psychotherapy and medication are not meant to solve problems that need to be addressed at the policy level.
On a personal level, I see how much harder it is for people to climb out of poor health and poverty when there is not an adequate safety net or stable provision of basic necessities—investments that can and should be paid for by taxes on the wealthy.
Thankfully, our state legislature has taken small but significant steps in the right direction. This past session, we saw the first reforms to our tax code in a century that prioritize people, making life for everyday Washingtonians a little less difficult. The passage of a Working Families Tax Credit and a Capital Gains Tax offer critical support to education, childcare, housing, and health care. These are crucial investments that fund the backbone, the architecture of a healthy society for all.
As a young physician, I know I’m advocating to increase taxes I will be asked to pay over the course of my career. This isn’t martyrdom. Progressive taxes are badly needed redistributive investments in the health of our communities: roads, parks, schools, health care, libraries, and much more. These investments improve the conditions of my neighbors, community, and ultimately my own quality of life.
I’m proud of the progress we’ve made, but the recovery isn’t over until we balance our tax code. Ours is still the most upside-down in the country. It is imperative that next session, we continue forward with an Extraordinary Wealth Tax and other reforms. We can right the wrongs built into our tax code, and in so doing ensure that all Washingtonians have what they need to live healthy, happy lives.
Jesse Paulsen, MD is a fourth year psychiatry resident and a member of the Economic Inequity and Health Task Force of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility. He lives and works in Seattle.