By James Hong and Erin Okuno
Special to Northwest Asian Weekly
Note: This is a response to a commentary that ran in the July 15 issue of our paper, “It’s a crime to be rich,” by Ruth Bayang, which opposed a Seattle City Council 2.25 percent income tax for individuals making over $250,000.
Seattle’s Asian American community was built on a foundation of mutual support and a collective effort to forge new paths that honor the past. Some of us have been here for generations; others are just discovering what Seattle can offer. What ties us together is a fundamental belief in building economic opportunity and working hard to support one’s family and community.
You can see the strength and vibrancy of our community every day in the Chinatown/International District (CID). Like other diverse neighborhoods in Seattle, the CID formed because of redlining and racist housing covenants that excluded Asians from living in other areas. Together, we have created a beautiful neighborhood from that ugly history.
And both of us have personal stories of how our lives in the United States have been made better because of community investments:
My (Erin Okuno’s) family left Japan for Hawaii generations ago. My family’s migration story would be drastically different if it weren’t for public services, such as public education and public universities, after-school programs, and libraries. I have been very privileged to be born into a strong Asian community in this country.
And my (James Hong’s) family came to the United States as refugees from the Vietnam War. I saw how my family struggled because of language, cultural, and financial barriers. But fortunately, as a child, I benefited from a high-quality public education, while my parents were away at work. I borrowed books from the library to keep myself busy during the countless hours I spent at my family’s small business.
Today, we continue to benefit from so many municipal resources, like clean drinking water and beautiful parks. We both want to share the prosperity we have with others in our Seattle community.
As two Asian Americans working in Seattle’s nonprofit sector, we see both how our community is thriving and how it continues to face real challenges. Skyrocketing rents and cost of living threaten to displace families, elders, and small businesses that have been here for generations. Homelessness is on the rise and public education is inadequately funded. As Asian Americans and Asian immigrants, our community also struggles because of lack of language access, health care, immigration support, and more.
To tackle these problems, Seattle needs to boost public investments in affordable housing, education, shelters for people who experience homelessness, and other public priorities. We can’t achieve this vision with our existing tax structure because the city depends too heavily on regressive taxes, like sales and property taxes, that impact middle class and low-income people more than wealthy residents.
According to the most recent “Who Pays?” report by the non-partisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, people with the lowest incomes in Seattle are paying an effective state and local tax rate seven times higher than those with the highest incomes: 16.8 percent versus just 2.4 percent, respectively.
This means that poorer people must pay far more than their share for essential public services.
It is reasonable for the city’s highest-income residents, who currently pay the lowest tax rates, to pay a little more to make Seattle a better place for everyone — including themselves — to live and work. Our rapidly changing city needs innovative new solutions that will allow communities like ours to thrive instead of falling behind. An income tax on the wealthy will help provide the revenue necessary to meet the challenges the Asian American community faces and continue our legacy of community and opportunity. Revenue from the tax will fund affordable housing, improve access to early education and community college, and lower regressive taxes that impact the working people and middle class who make up a large part of our community. That’s right — one stated the purpose of the revenue is to help lower sales, property, and business and occupation (“B&O”) tax rates.
If we truly want to honor our history and preserve what makes Seattle a welcoming place for current and future generations, everyone has to do their part. If we want the next generation to enjoy the same public services our families depended on — great schools, libraries, after-school programs, and more — we need to pursue progressive change that works for everyone, not just the wealthy who have benefited the most from Washington state’s strong economy. Seattle’s income tax on the wealthy will help our city grow more equitably, and help protect the community and neighborhood we love.
James Hong has over 10 years of experience in education, nonprofit development, social justice, and community organizing. His background includes both local and international service and leadership.
Erin Okuno is a board member with the Washington State Budget & Policy Center and works in the nonprofit sector.
They can be reached through firstname.lastname@example.org.