Update: On April 1 DC Mayor Vince Gray proposed a new tax bracket of 8.9% for household income over $200,000 a year, a modest increase and a small victory for Save Our Safety Net and coalition partners who have pushed for progressive taxes to fund safety net programs. However, the Mayor also proposed dramatic cuts to safety net services, including affordable housing, disability assistance, child care, homeless services and health care. And so the fight continues!
In the spring of 2010, the Washington DC chapter of Resource Generation was invited to join a ground-breaking campaign called “Save our Safety Net DC” or SOS. A group of young local activists had launched a petition drive the previous summer to challenge the DC city council, which was planning major cuts to safety net services meant to plug a growing budget deficit. Together, the new coalition honed in on a solution to the budget crisis: raise taxes on DC’s highest income earners, thereby bringing in new revenue and preventing further, devastating cuts.
A thorough review of the SOS campaign thus far can be found here. What hasn’t yet been documented is the role played by young people with wealth in the campaign, and the opportunities such an experience presents for RG activists in other states across the country that are experiencing similar budget crisis.
For me, it all started in February 2010 when I was approached by a friend pitching me to get involved with a new campaign related to the city budget and taxes. It sounded like a great idea, especially since I was already engaged in shaping a potential national Resource Generation tax campaign. Shortly thereafter I got a call from RG member David Krakow: “Hey Burke, I just found out about this amazing campaign called SOS and I think you should come to a meeting!” And then a few days later, an email from RG member Janelle Treibitz saying that she had been approached and asked to support this new Save our Safety Net campaign—perhaps, she suggested, it would be a good idea for the RG DC chapter to get involved? The deed was done. A week later our core group came together for a planning meeting to launch our collective involvement in the campaign, and a month after that we organized a well-attended RG/SOS outreach event at the restaurant where Janelle works.
That we set our sights on organizing the wealthy was no coincidence. Washington DC, like many other cities, has felt the dramatic effects of the recession over the past 3 years. And much like the rest of the country, the gap between rich and poor continues to grow in DC; perhaps more significantly, the color and geography of inequality is very pronounced in a city where poverty is largely concentrated in black neighborhoods in the south and east, while excessive wealth is clustered in mostly-white neighborhoods in the northwest part of the city. Though many (newer) white residents have been impervious to the negative effects of gentrification on the city’s majority black population, some have recognized the growing divide and sought out ways to challenge the disturbing dynamic.
The SOS-DC campaign arose as one such response. Organized by privileged folks and young professionals working as social service providers, our group sought to strategically leverage the resources and tools—such as connections with policy institutions, social media expertise, and access to decision-makers—towards the looming budget battle. By focusing on increasing taxes on the wealthy, the campaign was uniquely situated to organize people with privilege. As a crew of young people focused on economic justice, what could be more exciting?
For the campaign to be successful many partnerships were necessary: with service-orientated groups and their clients, with think tanks like the progressive DC Fiscal Policy Institute, and with high-income individuals themselves. The RG crew took on the latter piece and began building a list of wealthy folks who would publicly speak out in favor of taxes.
Early in the campaign our list was still pretty thin, so David and I fell into the role of high-income spokespeople. Having been organizing with Resource Generation for a number of years I was becoming comfortable talking about my own privilege and confident in pushing for wealthy people to shoulder more of the tax burden. I appeared at a lunch hosted by Councilmember Michael Brown surveying local high-income individuals about the tax increase, and spoke before the city council about my support for the proposal. David was one of the main speakers at a big rally in front of the City Council building and blogged on the SOS website as a person with wealth. The problem, at least in my case, is that I wasn’t the best high-income spokesperson. As an organizer my earned income has never been more than $30,000 a year; as an inheritor with invested wealth, only capital gains following a spectacular year for the market could push the combined incomes of my partner and I close to the $200,000 cap that we had identified for the tax increase to kick in.
So we needed some REAL high-income earners. In retrospect, I can now say that it’s not an easy task to organize wealthy people in defiance of their own class interests. Where do you find people making a $250,000 a year who are progressive—and gutsy enough—to grab a mic and say they want to be taxed more? We did find a few other high-income individuals who spoke out publicly, including a local philanthropist, a progressive tax lawyer and a well-known restaurateur. But we never managed to gather the hoped-for dozens of high-income individuals that would descend on the city council and demand to pay higher taxes. That is still our challenge.
And though we came two council votes short of achieving the tax increase (both in the budget vote of May 2010 and during an special Council session in November when a large deficit was identified), we did organize some remarkable, creative actions and put the issue of tax increases squarely at the center of the public debate over the budget. Our action during the November vote was a raucous affair that garnered widespread media attention and paved the way for the next round of the fight.
Which is where we find ourselves now. This spring SOS and our allies have our best opportunity yet to actually convince the mayor and DC council to pass an income tax increase. It will be a challenge to get more than a handful of high-income earners to publicly endorse the proposal; and, even in winning a slight tax increase we’ll have a long way to go before a truly progressive tax system in DC. But with major budget cuts on the horizon at the state level throughout the country, and the federal government on the brink of shutdown due to budget squabbles, a breakthrough on raising taxes in one jurisdiction would be a triumph to build on. Meanwhile, Resource Generation is planning to launch a nationwide tax campaign, and organizations like Wealth for the Common Good and United For a Fair Economy are building effective campaigns to stem the Tea Party tide. There’s no better time to heed the battle cry “New Taxes Now!!”