A new effort by state officials seeks to ensure low-income people can afford to serve on state boards and commissions so that the voices at the table come from a wider variety of life experiences.
In his proposed budget for 2022, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee recommends allocating $50,000 for stipends to help low-income people to participate in state advisory groups. The proposal states that those experiencing poverty and inequality should be compensated for providing their insights, noting “the value of lived experience.”
In support of that budget plan, state Sen. Claire Wilson, D-Auburn, introduced Senate Bill 5793 by request of Attorney General Bob Ferguson. The bill would establish stipends of $200 a day for any state group participant who is low income or a member of an underrepresented demographic.
“I’ve spent the last 40 years working with families who are furthest from opportunity, who are often asked to be a voice of lived experience on boards and groups, but at the same time, that work for them is voluntary,” Wilson said at a Jan. 19 hearing before the Senate Committee on State Government and Elections.
Several state group participants testified in support of the bill, many of whom shared that they are sometimes the only participant who isn’t compensated for their time during state group meetings. Each person who testified at the hearing supported the the goal of the bill, though one concern was that the eligibility of the bill wasn’t wide enough to ensure adequate accessibility for low-income people.
Jackson, who co-chairs the steering committee of Inslee’s Poverty Reduction Work Group, said the $70 he receives for each meeting helps him to make ends meet, putting that money towards paying bills. However, the vast majority of state boards, commissions, councils, committees and work groups do not currently offer stipends for participants.
“What people don’t get is that my lived experience is something that is very unique that a book can’t tell you about,” he said.
Jackson has served on various state boards and commissions for years, though it wasn’t until joining the Poverty Reduction Work Group steering committee that he felt his input and expertise were truly valued.
“It was the first time that my input was taken very seriously,” Jackson said. “My voice matters. What the steering committee is bringing to the table matters. You want to know why? They pay the experts. We are experts in our own field.”
Republicans aren’t necessarily opposed to the idea. State Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, commended efforts to provide more dependable wages for board participants.
“These people devote so much of their lives to this, and get paid a pretty modest sum,” Stokesbary said. “I think it’s a very noble goal. I think we want to encourage folks that are capable and interested in serving to be able to serve.”
Although he remains generally supportive, Stokesbary raised questions of the necessity and cost-effectiveness of the program. Specifically, he wishes to see more data on how often qualified board members turn down the position because of the associated cost of participating.
At a Jan. 19 public hearing, Republican state Sen. Brad Hawkins of East Wenatchee asked about the possibility of increasing access to stipends for all board participants — not just low-income ones. More recently, however, Hawkins voted against the bill in the Senate Committee on State Government and Elections.
In her work as senior policy adviser in the governor’s office, RaShelle Davis has found that low-income people who are asked to serve on state boards turn down the position because of the cost associated with repeatedly taking time off work and obtaining child care.
Assuming SB 5793 passes, the state Office of Equity will compile a report on best practices and guidance for agencies to measure how effective the stipend is. After two years, lawmakers can analyze the effectiveness of increasing access to stipends. Davis hypothesized that the stipends will lower barriers for people to participate and increase diversity among board participants.
“I think evidence will show that this is the right approach because, anecdotally, when we’ve talked to folks, they’ve said that a stipend would certainly help them, and make it easier for them to participate,” Davis said.
The Office of Equity report would also serve to measure the appropriate amount of funding needed to effectively increase board diversity.
Jackson pointed out the irony that the government pays researchers and consulting companies to compile data on poverty, when government workers could instead pay low-income people for their input directly.
“If they pay people with lived experiences, they’re helping us to get out of poverty,” Jackson said. “And I think that’s what’s missing.”
Jackson believes that paying low-income people for their expertise would also decrease the stigma often associated with poverty. Jackson, a member of the Central Kitsap School District’s Board of Directors, recalled one moment during his campaign when a woman questioned how he was able to run for office when he's poor.
“Society as a whole puts people that are in poverty and people with lived experience in this box of ignorance, when that is often untrue,” Jackson said. “That’s one of the things that you’re starting to hear from people with lived experience: My vision, what I go through, matters.”