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Friday, March 6, 2009

This post is the final installment in our four-part series on a shared vision for Washington State. The series is based on the Progress Index, a framework for analyzing the state budget that was developed by the Budget & Policy Center. The Progress Index utilizes four commonly-held values: education and opportunity, thriving communities, healthy people and environment, and economic security. Last week, I wrote about healthy people and environment.

State investments in economic security ensure that people can survive difficult financial times and take steps to improve their quality of life. Families succeed when parents are secure in their ability to provide basic necessities for their children. Workers prosper when workplaces are safe and financial protections exist in cases of injury or job loss. And everyone in state benefits when people can meet their basic needs and find meaningful employment.

Even in times of prosperity, we all face the risk of job loss, disability, or family crisis. When the economy is strained, public investments in economic security matter even more. State spending on economic security fell as a share of personal income in each biennium from 1995-97 to 2005-07. Funding increased in the 2007-09 budget due to increased reimbursement rates for child care centers and a new collective agreement with family child care providers. (See graph)

As the unemployment rate rises in Washington State due to the current economic crisis, unemployment insurance benefits play an increasingly important role in shoring up economic security in the state. Two recent stimulus efforts are directed at this benefit: the federal stimulus bill which passed last month, increases the weekly benefit amount by $25 for most claimants. The state also enacted new legislation in February increasing the weekly benefit amount by $45 and raising the weekly minimum amount for many claimants.

The combined impact will be an additional $70 per week for recipients and $480 million of additional money circulating through the state economy. Economists calculate that for every dollar of unemployment insurance issued, there is $1.64 generated in spending.

Safe and affordable housing is also an important component of economic security. Stable housing is a key variable to getting jobs, educational attainment, and health care. Research shows that quick rehousing plus supportive services can have a long-term impact on homelessness. But affordable housing is not readily available to many people living in Washington State: three-fourths of renters with incomes under $35,000 per year were paying more than 30 percent of their income in rent in 2007.

Finally, financial asset development is an important way for people with lower incomes to work towards improving their quality of life. Washington encourages lower income families to build assets through the state's Individual Development Accounts program. IDAs match the savings of lower income families to help build assets that can be used to start a business, buy a home, or pay for college.

But in other instances, the state inadvertently discourages asset building by limiting access to temporary cash benefits (TANF) based on assets the family possesses, such as a retirement account or a car used to commute to work or school. This system works against shared goals. Public programs should help people meet temporary needs without requiring them to deplete modest savings.

This post concludes our series on a shared vision for Washington State. The Budget & Policy Center will continue to use the framework outlined in the Progress Index to evaluate the state budget and analyze our long-term progress toward meeting research-based goals.

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