COVID-19 and the overwhelming demand for basic needs

The Washington Recovery Agenda can help the hardest-hit communities survive through the worst of the pandemic.

food bank warehouse

Amid the pandemic and economic fallout, demands for basic needs have skyrocketed in Washington state. (Emily McCarty/Crosscut)

The economic damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic has not affected everyone in Washington equally. While the wealthiest among us have largely gone unaffected — and in many cases continued to grow their wealth — millions of our neighbors have suffered every kind of economic hurt all at once: unemployment, ballooning debt, a lack of child care, and food and housing insecurity. 

Washington’s middle class is sinking, and sinking fast — and those at the bottom are being forced to make unthinkable choices.

As CEO of Byrd Barr Place, I see families struggling through this crisis every day, and more people struggling every week. That’s why I’m endorsing the Washington Recovery Agenda (WRA), a new plan calling on Washington state’s leaders to reject knee-jerk budget cuts and instead save Washington’s economy by immediately investing at least $2.5 billion in our people and small businesses.

The Washington Recovery Agenda will help the hardest-hit communities survive through the worst of the pandemic, and it will supercharge our economic recovery, establishing a stronger, more inclusive economy than we had before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Every penny of that $2.5 billion is urgently needed. Even with renewed hope for more federal aid, Washington’s recovery demands immediate relief that meets the tremendous scale of demand. Without widespread child care and small business assistance programs, we’ll see more and more job losses, which will further strain our already underfunded social safety net. Direct cash assistance will not only help families make ends meet until we can get people vaccinated, but it will also encourage consumer spending. When we get money into the hands of people who most need it, those people will immediately spend that money in their communities, supporting neighborhood businesses and creating jobs.

Because this economic crisis has so ruthlessly impacted service workers, women, and Black and brown communities while leaving our wealthiest neighbors relatively unscathed, it’s difficult for our leaders to comprehend the urgency that the moment requires. So let me share our ground-level experiences. In January of 2020, before the pandemic arrived, Byrd Barr supplied housing, food, energy and financial assistance to 500 Seattle-area households per week. One year later, we’re scrambling to serve 1,100 households per week — and demand increases with each passing month.

Our government contracts stipulate that we are allowed to offer families only one visit to our food bank per week. But contractual demands don't magically silence the demands of hungry bellies. More and more families are requesting a second weekly visit because they have no other way to feed themselves. In my 18 years at Byrd Barr, I’ve never seen this kind of demand for basic needs — not even close.

A third of those 1,100 households we’re serving weekly are completely new to the social services system — they’re traditionally middle-class adults who didn’t grow up in poverty. This year, Byrd Barr has had to hire additional client advocates to help these new families navigate the confusing labyrinth of public and private human services they need to survive. And this won’t be a temporary struggle; research indicates that half of all families who fall below the poverty line once will spend the rest of their lives dipping in and out of poverty.

As the state Legislature debates the proper response to this economic crisis, I’d like to offer a word of warning: Enacting budget cuts or merely keeping the lights on will only extend the hardship and the duration of this crisis. I know, because our clients at Byrd Barr are still dealing with the aftereffects of budget cuts that Washington state enacted in response to the Great Recession, which left the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and other services woefully unprepared for the tens of thousands of households that suddenly needed help in 2020. The exploding unhoused population on our streets today is a consequence of 2008’s all-cuts approach.

States like Washington that cut spending during the Great Recession had deeper recessions and slower recoveries than states that increased spending. Increasing investments during a recession is the only way to create jobs, boost economic growth and drive a quick, robust recovery. Recent estimates show that an investment about the scale of the Washington Recovery Agenda could create up to 66,000 new jobs, boosting economic growth and consumer spending by billions of dollars.

The Washington Recovery Agenda will protect countless families like the ones we serve at Byrd Barr from intergenerational poverty — and their spending will support local businesses and keep people employed.

Washington state can fund this spending with the untaxed wealth of the superrich and our hugely profitable corporations. Our tax code is upside-down — our poorest neighbors pay up to six times more of their income in taxes than the richest households. Raising this revenue wouldn’t at all affect the lives of the wealthy, but it would allow our economy to roar back to life, save tens of thousands of families from poverty and help correct the shameful mistakes of the past.

This isn’t just a moral issue — though it certainly is that. The Washington Recovery Agenda is also sound economic policy.

About the Authors & Contributors

Andrea Caupain Sanderson

Andrea Caupain Sanderson

Andrea Caupain Sanderson, CEO of Byrd Barr Place, is a co-founder of the Black Future Co-op Fund and the BIPOC Executive Directors Coalition of Washington state.