Changing Conversation about Income Inequality

June 29, 2012 -- Puget Sound Sage

They say that the tide is turning in the Puget Sound. Boeing orders are flying high. Amazon is priming a new campus. Tourism and business travel are pushing the needle. More passengers are landing at Sea-Tac airport than ever. And Walmart wants to sell groceries to our communities. It sure is great to be in the midst of growing prosperity -- unless you aren’t prospering.

Over the last few months, Puget Sound Sage has released four studies showing that as we rebuild our regional economy, too many people are left behind.

Our Pain, Their Gain reveals the hidden costs of the Seattle hospitality industry. While hotel chains reap billions in profits, local workers struggle with low earnings, no health insurance and high rates of pain and injury. Meanwhile, the public pays tens of millions to provide health care for uninsured hotel workers. The hotel workforce, comprising of a majority of immigrants, endure these unfair conditions in a growing industry that needs significant public investment in the future. 

The Economic Impact of a Walmart Store in the Skyway Neighborhood of South Seattle speaks truth to the lie that Walmart grocery stores entering existing urban markets have a net positive community impact – a deception created by Walmart’s paid consultants. Our own economic modeling expert, Dr. Chris Fowler, does the math right. A new Walmart grocery store undermines union standards, resulting in a loss of millions of dollars of earnings for our communities over the long-run. Local governments who welcome Walmart with open arms should take notice – this is one poison apple we don’t need.

First Class Airport, Poverty Class Jobs demonstrates that the Port of Seattle’s airport creates good jobs for airline employees while leaving 4,000 terminal workers with poverty-level wages. At an average of $9.70 an hour, wheelchair assistants, baggage handlers and cabin cleaners make far below the $15 per hour living wage needed to makes ends meet in Seattle. These poverty wage jobs are no accident – companies like Alaska Airlines, which accounts for half of all passengers at Sea-Tac, have outsourced this work to contractors who compete by slashing wages and benefits.

Transit Oriented Development that’s Healthy, Green and Just asks a basic question about Puget Sound’s new light rail system – how do we ensure this massive public investment benefits all families? In Southeast Seattle neighborhoods the light rail has already accelerated gentrification and may lead to displacement of many communities of color into the suburbs. It’s not just a lack of affordable housing, though. Low-wage jobs keep family incomes down as real estate prices rise, creating pressure to leave. As it turns out, transit oriented development that ignores racial equity and job quality will short-change light rail’s potential environmental benefits. 

Sage’s studies indicate that the post-recession economy could widen the gap between those doing well and those just surviving. Misguided decisions are being made by big businesses and elected officials that allow benefits from public investment to flow primarily to the top. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. 

Sage’s research demonstrates we can build an economy that is more fair, with good jobs for all willing to work hard and contribute to our region. We can hold corporate powers that rig the system in their favor accountable by requiring that they pay their fair share. And we can ensure our government makes the right investments in our communities so that all families can thrive.