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Eastern Washington Legislative Conference:

Groups invite awareness and action for economic justice

Nadine Van Stone, Erica Scott, Shar Lichty
Nadine Van Stone, Erica Scott, and Shar Lichty share concerns about economic justice at Legislative Conference.

Given the state’s $4.6 billion budget shortfall, tax cuts and widening economic disparity, Shar Lichty of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane (PJALS), Erica Scott of Voices for Opportunity, Income, Child Care, Education and Support (VOICES),  and Nadine Van Stone of Catholic Charities shared in a workshop on economic injustice during the recent Eastern Washington Legislative Conference.

In its work for peace, justice and human rights, economic issues are among the priorities as  PJALS launches a “Bring Our Billion$ Home” campaign to inform citizens of the need to shift spending from military to job creation.

Shar is appalled that the governor’s all-cuts budget targets the state’s most vulnerable people—children, seniors, disabled and low-income people.

She said some cuts are counter-productive to reducing spending.  For example, to cut $1 of food stamps from the budget takes $1.75 out of the economy from funds that would circulate through stores and into jobs.

As the grandmother of a healthy 13-month-old grandchild, Shar knows what cuts in prenatal care would mean.  Her daughter had health insurance and good prenatal health care.

“The solution to the budget shortfall,” she said, “is to rebuild the economy, not make cuts that have a ripple effect.

“The last two years, Washington cut $5 billion from its budget, but there are 500 tax loopholes that benefit big business and mean a loss of $6.5 billion in tax income to the state,” she explained.

Despite funds spent to bail out Wall Street banks, banks did not pass the bailout on to help those behind on mortgages.

“The loopholes exist at the expense of the most vulnerable as education, health care and in-home care for seniors are cut,” Shar said.  “In addition, hundreds of millions of dollars are lost in tax evasion.”

Bring the Billion$ Home is part of a local, state and national call for people to see the local losses from the U.S. spending $1.1 trillion on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Organizers say Eastern Washington’s share would be $2.1 billion that could have been spent on health care, student grants, education, renewable energy, veterans’ care or job creation.

“The campaign seeks to shift our priorities.  We do not have a budget problem but a problem with priorities and values,” Shar said.  “Closing tax loopholes will require a two-thirds majority in the legislature, so we need to let legislators know our priorities are health care, education and jobs.”

PJALS is planning a Peace and Economic Justice Action Conference on Friday and Saturday, March 18 and 19, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane, 4340 W. Fort Wright Dr.

Erica said VOICES will participate in CHANGE 2012, a Spokane campaign modeled after the national Equal Voices for America’s Families to empower families living in poverty to be civically engaged.

CHANGE stands for Creating Hope to Achieve Needed Growth for Everyone.  Spokane has a nearly 18 percent poverty rate, one of the highest in the state, but a low percent of low-income people voted in the last election. 

“Often people living in poverty lack time and resources to vote as they struggle to meet basic needs in a society that systematically lacks resources for the poor,” she said, “but families in poverty need to be engaged to show legislators there are options besides eliminating social services.

“Research shows that more people are empowered to vote when they have opportunities to facilitate conversations with families living in similar situations about common concerns,” Erica said. 

Most of the effort informs communities how legislation affects their families, friends and neighborhoods.  People need to join others to have a voice in the legislative process, she said, and to understand they can vote to improve their quality of life.

Many who were convicted of felonies mistakenly think they can never vote again, but their voting rights are restored once they complete probation and parole.

She believes the lack of revenue for the state budget is from a lack of jobs, which limits the ability of people to work their way out of generational poverty.

CHANGE 2012 will meet at 6 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 3, at 905 W. Riverside, Suite 304.

Nadine, who is involved with direct services to women at Catholic Charities’ St. Margaret’s Shelter in Spokane, is part of a coalition advocating for legislative changes that will affect the lives of those she serves.

The Housing Trust Funds are a priority because they provide funds to build buildings like St. Margaret’s 120,000 square-foot shelter in 2000.

“When the government changed from welfare to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), the idea was that TANF assistance would last just 60 months or five years, so families would use it as a stepping stone,” Nadine said.

The time limit has not been enforced in Washington.  Few families have gone off, because transitional services were not there to move them to independence, she said.  The end of January, some families will lose $100 of their $500 monthly assistance.

They were told Jan. 19, but needed to inform the Spokane Housing Authority so it could adjust the amount they would pay for housing—based on a third of their income.

“We need local solutions by faith, business and social service communities, along with people affected,” Nadine said.  “We need to advocate for legislation.”

One example of a local solution is the Spokane Community Warehouse, which St. Margaret’s started to pick up donated furniture and deliver it to families needing furniture.  Since it opened last year, it has served 250 households and has created job opportunities.

St. Margaret’s also opened a boutique, The Pearl, to provide clothing for homeless women.

Other local solutions could come from the city and county cooperating to use funding more effectively, such as funds passed in 2008 to help end homelessness, Nadine said.

Participants in the workshop called for formation of a coalition of groups working to address hunger, homelessness and poverty to lead a coordinated effort.

For information, call 838-7870 (PJALS), 326-4135 (VOICES) or 624-9788 (St. Margaret’s).