We’re just beginning to glimpse what a prolonged contraction of the local economy could mean, and it’s sobering. Already many low-wage, gig, freelance and self-employed workers are losing their livelihoods. Small businesses are dropping like flies. Homeless people are at serious risk of sickness and death by virus, on top of the usual hazards of cold, rain, hunger, hostility and indifference. The coronavirus crisis is revealing and sharpening all the inequities that were already there: The poor get poorer, the vulnerable become more vulnerable. Anyone who was already teetering on the precipice of personal disaster is liable to tumble off.
Thankfully, our state and local governments have started making moves to cushion the fall. Gov. Jay Inslee strengthened worker protections, including unemployment benefits. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan promised to expand shelter space and announced some limited relief for small businesses. The private sector is stepping up, too. Major tech companies have promised to continue paying hourly workers whose shifts are cut. Starbucks expanded paid sick leave, and Amazon pledged $5 million to help small businesses around its near-deserted headquarters.
And yet these measures won’t save everyone, not even close. It’s like trying to stop a flood with 5-gallon buckets. Advocates are calling for bolder actions (disclosure: I’m involved in this effort through my work with the Transit Riders Union). Some are relatively simple, like halting eviction filings. But others will get expensive quickly: To truly keep workers and families and struggling businesses afloat, government needs to be able to give people money. We can hope for a comprehensive national stimulus, but we’d better not count on it or wait for it. The state should also step up and release emergency funds. But in many ways, Seattle is now in the strongest position to act swiftly and decisively to raise flexible funds for local relief. After all, we have in our midst some of the largest, wealthiest corporations in the world, the ones best able to weather this storm.
I think we should tax big business. The city of Seattle should pass an emergency ordinance large enough to raise, say, $500 million per year. Using bonding or loans, the city can immediately start funding relief measures to help Seattle residents, small businesses and human service providers cope with the economic and social fallout of this pandemic.
Why pick on large corporations, when some are already stepping up voluntarily? Because that’s where the money is. I don’t mean that flippantly; we simply need new resources so that poor and vulnerable people don’t suffer and die, and so our local economy doesn’t spiral downward into oblivion. You can’t extract those resources from those same poor people and small businesses without causing further damage. So you go to the very top, where the great mass of wealth produced by our society has piled up. There’s plenty of it up there, I promise.
With luck and vigilance, in a month or two the coronavirus crisis will abate. We’ll all resume our normal lives, going to work and school, visiting theaters and restaurants, getting massages and manicures, attending sports matches and concerts, maybe even traveling to Europe. We’ll be free to congregate and exchange cash for goods and services to our hearts’ content. At that point, when the need for pandemic-related relief evaporates, we can pivot and use Seattle’s new big business tax to tackle our other official state of emergency: homelessness.
The deaths from COVID-19 are tragic: at least 27 in King County as of Thursday, nearly all of them elders at Life Care Center, with more surely to come. But just as tragic are the deaths of the 530 homeless people known to have died outdoors or by violence since King County and Seattle declared a homelessness state of emergency in November 2015. Also on Wednesday, the community group Women in Black stood vigil for nine people who died outside in February alone: four women and four men, ages 35, 39, 49, 30, 69, 46, 28 and 56; and a baby girl, 8 days old.
The state Legislature is just now wrapping up its session, and efforts to authorize a King County business tax for homelessness have died. But the public discussions surrounding those efforts were useful. It was great to see corporate leaders acknowledging realities that advocates have been describing for years: that we know what works to help people out of homelessness; we just have to scale up proven approaches like Housing First and Permanent Supportive Housing; that the rapid growth of our region’s tech sector has driven a severe shortage of affordable housing; and that major new resources are needed for a sustained period to address the crisis.
Now our city’s tech giants have a chance to save the day twice over. The Seattle City Council is already poised to take up the question of taxing big business. As the coronavirus spreads and isolation becomes the new normal, people’s lives are in freefall. There’s no time to lose.