Help Us Build a Strong Movement
for Economic Justice in Seattle and Beyond
Since 1973, income disparity in America has steadily grown. The homelessness that began in the seventies and exploded into crisis over the next decade has become a fixture of our economic and civic lives. Over this period, the majority of us have experienced increased economic vulnerability.
Private charity and local government alone are poorly equipped to fix a system that consistently produces greater levels of inequality. Real solutions to economic injustice require us to build alliances across our differences and organize for power.
America has a growing poverty class that is characterized by vulnerability to housing loss. For many, access to this most basic of human needs is out of reach entirely. Recent federal funding priorities have shifted resources away from family and rural homelessness to address the problem of the “chronically homeless,” a population that represents approximately ten percent of those who lack housing. These priorities deflect attention from issues of poverty and inequality by presenting homelessness as mostly a problem of individual dysfunction, as opposed to being the result of deliberate policy decisions that benefit the wealthy at the expense of the majority.
Meanwhile, income and wealth disparity have returned to pre-1930s levels, with wealth inequality leading the way. As government has become more beholden to the corporate interests that operate within a globalized economy, the fortunes of all but the most affluent twenty percent have largely declined.
The richest one percent — who now enjoy one-hundred-ninety times the wealth of the median American household — have done best of all. One in one hundred households hold an average of $14.8 million in assets, while median family wealth stands at just $82,000.
Working and middle class people have been hit hard. As wealth in the United States transfers upward, the very commodities that offer a toehold in the American Dream — healthcare, housing, and quality education — have risen most dramatically in cost.
Low-income people of color have been hit hardest of all. Infant mortality rates and unemployment disparity in minority communities are again on the rise after years of improvement. Incarceration trends that disproportionately target African-Americans have led to reduced economic opportunities and a deepening racialization of poverty. People of color have long been disproportionately at risk of homelessness.
While payday and sub-prime lenders prey upon the most vulnerable, debt is an experience that most of us share. More than fifty million Americans have negative assets. In other words, many of us now owe more than we own.
We are working more jobs and longer hours, and the margin for error has become increasingly thin. While most of us will not become homeless, many will come close.
Homelessness, heightened inequality, and ever-deepening debt are not the inevitable by-product of blind market forces. As corporate interests have largely captured the democratic process, our money-driven politics have ceased to serve the common good.
The divisions that exist within the national economy are easily seen in the new Seattle downtown. Within just a few blocks — near Pike Place Market, Benaroya Hall, and the newly expanded Seattle Art Museum — four luxury towers will add 505 new condos with an average value of $2.2 million each.
As the cost of housing in Seattle and our City’s median income grow further apart, homelessness and economic vulnerability have increased.
A home in Seattle now costs nearly eight times the Seattle median income. This ratio has widened by thirty-nine percent since 2000. Average rent rose by more than ten percent last year to reach an all time high of $1,052.
Rental vacancies are below three percent. Those who have poor credit or other problems are often unable to compete for scarce affordable market-rate apartments. Waiting lists for Seattle’s 20,800 subsidized units — a number that includes federally supported Section 8 housing vouchers — are typically one to three years long.
The new popularity of urban living can be seen in the proliferation of construction cranes throughout the downtown. Forty-nine new condo projects are scheduled for completion in this area by 2010. Drawn by the cultural amenities of the city and the attractions of a short commute, 23,000 people have moved to Seattle since 2000. Condo conversion alone has led to the loss of nearly 5,000 rental units in the past three years. More than two thirds of these were affordable to those at eighty percent of median income or below.
Despite the construction boom, Seattle leads the Puget Sound region in work that doesn’t pay. One in four people in our city earn less than a living wage. This has been defined as pay that “allows families to meet their basic needs, without public assistance, and that provides them some ability to deal with emergencies and plan ahead.” For King County, this has been calculated at $28 an hour for a family of three with a single wage earner, or $12 an hour for a single adult.
Local growth in high wage jobs such as computer programmer or software engineer are more than matched by an expanding low wage sector of clerks, janitors, and sales personnel. Nearly seventy percent of the 240,000 jobs added in Washington State between 2002 and 2006 paid below eighty percent of median income.
Given the failure of wages to keep pace with the cost of housing, it is not surprising to find homelessness on the rise. The 2008 street homeless One Night Count, organized by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, found 2,631 people surviving outside of an overcrowded system of shelter and transitional housing. This represents a 15% countywide increase over the previous year. A comparison of areas counted in Seattle this year and last yields a sobering 18% increase in street homelessness.
As the demographics of urban living have shifted toward those who can afford it, extreme poverty has become increasingly criminalized. Expanded anti-panhandling legislation, bans on public feeding, a rise in private security forces hired by and accountable to downtown interests, prohibitions on car camping, and sweeps of homeless campsites are all typical strategies to reduce visible homelessness in cities across America.
Despite the clear evidence that the basic survival needs of Seattle’s homeless are not being met, the City has recently defined all camping and storage of personal items on public property as “unauthorized” and illegal. A policy of general tolerance — with campsite clearances triggered by a pattern of neighborhood complaints — has given way to regularly scheduled sweeps of known encampments.
These new policies criminalize survival while offering little to no real assistance to those who are displaced. No Trespass citations bar campers from public property and result in criminal charges when violated. Clearance crews are directed to immediately dispose of all survival gear — tarps, sleeping bags, blankets, and tents — that remain in areas where 48-hour clearance notices are posted.
This has little or nothing to do with Seattle’s commitment to ending homelessness, and merely deepens the misery of those who have the least.
A Seattle economic justice agenda must promote housing affordability and economic opportunity while recognizing the right of homeless people not just to survive, but also to secure the help they desperately need.
Homelessness is the extreme end of a growing continuum of economic vulnerability. It is in our mutual self-interest to protect those who suffer most while we work together to restore economic democracy.
Download the Real Change 2007 Annual Report here. The photo of the Fifteen Twenty-One ("designed exclusively for the confident few") over on Second Ave where the Green Tortoise used to be is Revel Smith
The Race for Wages: Livable Wage Jobs in the Current Economy, Northwest Federation of Community Organizations. December, 2007
A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities, National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. January 2006.
Skills Required: Preparing Puget Sound for Tomorrow’s Middle Wage Jobs, Seattle Jobs Initiative. March, 2008
The State of Working America 2006/2007, Economic Policy Institute (www.epi.org)
The Squandering of America, Robert Kuttner, Knopf, 2008.
Locked Out, a web only American Prospect interview with Bruce Western, author of Punishment and Inequality in America. December 5, 2006.
Affordable Housing Action Agenda, Seattle Planning Commission Report. Feb., 2008.
Summary of the 2008 Unsheltered Homeless Count in Selected Areas of King County, Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness. January, 2008
United Way King County Community Assessment (www.uwkc.org)